<!–[if !mso]> st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>

Last week I found myself wondering if I had ever been frightened by a television programme. The occasion was paradoxical: half-way through a play in the Out of the Unknown series (BBC-2), which the linkman had introduced with some remarks about its being spine-tingling—or was it spine-chilling? It’s difficult to remember that this a conventional physical vocabulary is supposed to relate to real dramatic effects. There must have been people whose hair stood on end as something dreadful appeared to have happened, just as there must somewhere have been somebody reading a book who found that he couldn’t put it down. But it’s just as curious to meet people who denounce violence and say how much they enjoy a good crime story—a juicy murder, to revert to the conventional language. So it’s interesting to wonder about this wholly respectable terrorisation.
Some people who talk about a really good thriller aren’t at first sight people you would expect to hear talking about thrills in any other capacity. And what is it that produces, in a culture dominated by business and by its versions of common sense and practicality, this persistent taste for the conventionally irrational, with its local repertory and dialect of spooks, creeps and chills? There are traditional arguments about purgation, about discharge or reconciliation, through a play. But they seem rather a long way from the television set. There, the deliberation of the entertaining intention to frighten can come through as chilling in quite another sense.
Out of the Unknown used to be mainly what is called science fiction. In the current series the operative word seems to be “psychological”. “Welcome Home”, which provoked these reflections, used an internal dramatic viewpoint to persuade us that the man coming home after an accident was the husband and doctor he believed himself to be and that the husband and doctor he found there, with the same—his own?—name, was some kind of impostor. Every convention was then spoken about: invasion by an alien species or a hostile foreign power; the fingerprints of a man who had died two years before in the West Indies (voodoo!); sinister mind-bending drugs. Or it could, take your pick, be paranoia, as everyone including his supposed friends seemed to be part of the conspiracy, though since We had seen the other man apparently committing a murder, with local dramatic effects suggesting furtiveness, we were still inclined to take the conspiracy as objective. As in the end, rather hurriedly and in a different way, it was: the field-trial of a new suggestibility drug, to give the man an identity that would be preferable to his past. Though why the alternative identity should be that of one of the doctors treating him wasn’t exactly clear. Unless—but of course: the irresponsibility of science. A clear case for Doomwatch.
What would it be, I wondered, that could come anywhere near fulfilling the conventional promise of desirable frightening effects? I’d better say, as a check, that I’ve been startled often enough by footsteps in empty houses, strange figures at windows, shadows, knives, abysses, mirrors, wrong faces above the pram. Mostly in print or the cinema: I can’t remember an instance on the box. When the figure at the window turned up in “Welcome Home” I found that I was looking at almond leaves through our own blue venetian blind. Perhaps the frame is too small to enclose us dramatically; the world around the frame too insistently present and domestic. I’ve often noticed in the cinema those moments when one comes back from enclosure in the frame; when through the half-dark one sees the clock again, and the red light for Exit, and the signs for Ladies and Gentlemen. Usually the film is still going on, but for a time not easily measured—and when measured still qualitatively different—there has been no conscious space between the absorbed eyes and the moving sequence of images. I don’t know how many people ever find this happening on television. For me it is less frequent but not unknown. Yet the dominance of the images—for it is also that—never seems to occur when it would be useful to people trying to entertain us out of our wits. Horror and terror still run in the cinema, with old images of vampires, bats, pterodactyls, mad scientists, automata and the walking dead. Television by contrast is silvery and cool.
Is it different in televised “science fiction”? The difficulty there is the wide variation that description now covers. A sharply written play a week earlier in Out of the Unknown—Edward Boyd’s “The Sons and Daughters of Tomorrow”—had us assuming some murderous coven, with strong smells of traditional witchcraft, and then revealed a community of telepaths and energy—throwers. Mutants, an
alien outpost, a Tarot seminary? One wasn’t encouraged to make any final identification. But this is a world away from, say, the adventures of Dr Who, where odd things regularly happen and there have been some memorable monsters, but where there is also Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart and some familiar office politics and a general air of suffused charm. Not much of the best science fiction has yet got to the screen. Its critical themes are identity and culture-contact, and in many ways it has advantages for the exploration of these, not only over realism but over the medieval and romantic repertories. Visual realisation, however, is a complicated matter.
Written on 3rd June 1971 by Raymond Williams.
With thanks to Michael Seely

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s