Saturday, April 20, 2013

Hide: There's A Ghost In My House

'I'm talking to the spirits that inhabit this house!'

When the first trailers for this week's Doctor Who episode - Hide - emerged, most informed opinion was that Neil Cross, the episode's author, had clearly been watching The Stone Tape for inspiration. If you've never seen it, incidentally, The Stone Tape, a chilling Nigel Kneale 'science-versus-the-supernatural' tale in which the supernatural wins by two falls and a submission, was a one-off BBC2 play, first shown on Christmas Day 1972. It starred Michael Bryant, Jane Asher, Iain Cuthbertson, Michael Bates and Reginald Marsh and it's fair to say managed to scare half the bloody country witless. Well, those that weren't watching Barefoot in the Park on BBC1 or The Way West on ITV at the time, anyway. (In actual fact, the broadcast had an audience of 2.6 million punters, a very decent figure for BBC2 at any time, but especially on a Christmas Day in the seventies.) It would subsequently have a huge influence over the entire ghost story genre (both John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg publicly described themselves as fans). It's also extremely available on DVD and, frankly, every home should have a copy. But, in the event, the thing that Hide most resembles isn't The Stone Tape at all but, rather, another haunted house story from the 1970s. John Hough's The Legend of Hell House appeared a year after The Stone Tape in 1973, based on a novel by the king of horror Richard Matheson, who also wrote the screenplay, relocating the action from the North Eastern seaboard of the US  in the novel to a mist-shrouded Wykehurst Park in East Sussex. In the movie, a physicist, his wife and two mediums are hired by an eccentric billionaire to investigate the infamous Belasco House, 'the Mount Everest of haunted houses' and the site of an earlier experiment into the paranormal during which most of the participants went stark raving mad. It starred Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt and, in an uncredited cameo at the end, Michael Gough as the ghostly protagonist, fairly obviously modelled on Aleister Crowley. One of the most notable things about the movie, aside from the clingy, claustrophobic atmosphere was a groundbreaking eerie electronic soundtrack, created by Doctor Who veterans Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. As this blogger wrote in his 2004 book A Vault of Horror: A Study of Eighty Great (and Not-So-Great) British Horror Movies 1956 – 1974, The Legend of Hell House is 'a scary, minimalist story of science-versus-the-paranormal that spends eighty-odd minutes absolutely terrifying the audience and then utterly spoils it all with a gobbledegook climax stripped of any inherent drama.' If you can ignore the denouement, however, it's still a very fine movie indeed; atmospheric, weird and, in places, genuinely disturbing. And currently available on DVD for just over four knicker. And it was a copy of this which, this blogger believes, was stuck in Neil Cross's DVD player for the majority of the time he was writing Hide. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Not in the slightest. 'You didn't come here for the ghost, did you?'
'Spooky!' Cross - a fine writer of modern-day graphic urban horror - in [spooks] and, especially, Luther - wrote one previous Doctor Who episode, The Rings of Akhaten, a very different conceit which this blogger rather enjoyed, with certain reservations but which seems to have gone down a bit like a fart in a spacesuit with the cognoscenti. Here, however, Cross is on much more familiar territory and, you sense, more obviously crowd-pleasing as a bonus. Hide manages to produce all of the expected generic building blocks for a classic haunted house story, aided by Jamie Payne's adroitly menacing direction. Cross, reportedly, wanted to write 'a really old-fashioned scary episode of Doctor Who' targeted especially at children aged nine to twelve, which was how he remembered the show at that age (circa 1979-80, approximately). One idea dropped from the script at an early stage was to have The Doctor meet Bernard Quatermass, though this was ultimately not possible due to copyright reasons. If this story is true (and Cross mentions it in an interview with SFX magazine so there's little reason to doubt its veracity) then it's probable the character of Major Alec Palmer, one of 'the Baker Street Irregulars' at 'the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare' (played with considerable flair by the excellent Dougray Scott) was originally intended to be Nigel Kneale's creation. Cross also said that he wanted to tell the story with 'a small cast and as few locations as possible.' And he certainly got his wish as the TARDIS lands at Caliburn House to meet a professor and a psychic and track a phantom known as The Caliburn Ghast or, more sinisterly, The Witch Of The Well. But, of course, the so-called Witch Of The Well inevitably turns out to be more than your average spook.
'She's coming!' Hide begins on something of a generic cliché, a 'dark and stormy night' no less. Amid the crushing thunder and special effects lighting, we get some scene-setting; it's 25 November 1974, a horrible time in Britain's history (politically, socially and, especially, in terms of what was in the charts - David Essex is number one, for God's sake, that's a horror story in and of itself). So, we're greeted by lots of shots of primo-rad, retro seventies tech, Emma's ginger suede miniskirt and other examples of an era that taste forgot. 'Empathic psychic' Emaa (a genuinely lovely performance by Call The Midwife's Jessican Raine), is the Major's, if you will, 'assistant' (in inverted commas), something which The Doctor and Clara have a lot of fun dancing around once they arrive in the middle of a storm and pretend to be from, you know, The Ministry of Knives, Folks, Spoons, Rhubarb & Devious Plot Devices Involving Psychic Paper. Or something. That part doesn't really matter, to be honest. Though their arrival leads to some terrific dialogue conceits ('Doctor What?' 'If you like' and 'whiskey is the eleventh most disgusting thing ever invented' being, merely, two of them). We also get most of the stock elements that you'd expect in a ghost story; candles, bangs, freezing breath, strange smells and ominous portents. And, a note that says 'for the love of God, stop screaming.' Hide is nothing if not obvious where it needs to be. But, it's more than a mere genre pastiche, there's a lot of depth going on here, something which only becomes evident as the episode clicks, not entirely effortlessly, through the gears.
There are also the expected continuity references for the fans, not that some of them are likely to be, you know, grateful. Such miserable, entitled individuals seldom are. There's an allusion to Planet of the Spiders (and, how long do we reckon it'll be before somebody with spots, no girlfriend and a very small penis whinges, loudly, on an Internet message-board somewhere near you that Matt Smith pronounces 'Metebelis' differently to how Jon Pertwee did in 1974? I'm guessing about eight seconds, personally) 'And The Deadly Assassin (The Eye of Harmony) and the Cloister Bell and, obliquely, Image of the Fendahl (The Doctor confessing his fears to the otherworldly forest creature). There are visual nods to Munch's The Scream, and to most of the great ghost movies of the last fifty years (most notably The Haunting) and a quotation from Cole Porter. Plus, time paradoxes, pocket 'echo' universes and what is almost certainly Doctor Who's first, ever allusion to Kendal Mint Cake. They must have been doing cartwheels up in Cumbria about that. Particularly after The Doctor notes: 'Ignorance is ... what's the opposite of "bliss"?' and Clara replies: 'Carlisle?' Heh. The ghost - an 'objective phenomena' which cannot, seemingly, be quantified or measured - turns out to have a more scientific (and futuristic) origin than a haunting echo from times past. Which, actually, is a very Nigel Kneale-style idea (see, for instance, his classic 1963 teleplay The Road which deals with exactly such a scenario). But Kneale, a noted sour misanthrope of massive proportions when the mood took him (which wasn't infrequently) would have probably hated the climax and the idea that 'not everything ends. Not love. Not always.' Some people are like that, dear blog reader. They've, sadly, suffered a life which has left them with all of the joy and the pleasure sucked from their hearts which renders them dry and hollow husks, gaining no warmth or beauty or magnificence from life in general. They're to be pitied, really. They must be miserable as sin.

'This isn't a ghost story, it's a love story.' In a tale about humanity, in all its forms, Hide once again includes one of Steven Moffat's most regular leitmotifs of both the Doctor Who episodes which he's written and also those he produces; that if you throw love into the equation, there are - genuinely - few things in a big and frightening and often passionless universe that can't be overcome. Some people hate this concept. Hate it with all of their dry and hollow hearts. And they'll tell anybody that will listen (and, indeed, anyone that won't) about their utter and complete loathing for it, loudly, all over the Interweb. So, despite the fact that this episode sees Matt Smith at his most Troughtonesque (on several levels), they will still be those who will whinge and mutter and gibber and then go to their beds, on their own, of course, and watch a DVD of Timelash to prove a point. Or something. I can't be bothered with that nonsense, personally. This is 2013, this is Doctor Who, this is what this is. If you want to live in another Century, dear blog reader, invent time travel and follow Hila into the veritable abyss. Me? I'll be here, in the present, revelling in the pitch-perfect clarity, wiseness and sanity of Clara's 'we're all ghosts to you, aren't we?' speech, ending with The Doctor's most brilliantly empathic - dare one say, 'human' - reply: 'You are the only mystery worth solving.' Does he mean humanity in general or Clara in particular? Time will tell, we suppose.

'Experience makes liars of us all.' Hide, despite taking a while to get to its ultimate point, and despite trying, perhaps just a touch too hard to keep up the pretence that it is just another hoary old ghost story for about ten minutes longer than necessary, actually scores on just about every level possible. As text, subtext and metaphor, it's a beautifully constructed piece of artifice. A majestically small scale, clever, knowing example of what you can do if you subvert a core textual structure and, with cunning use of bluff, takes the audience in one direction and then, without warning, catapults them off in another entirely. It has a properly smart criteria, being specific, measurable, realistic and - in more ways than one - timebound. It is, in this blogger's opinion - and on just one viewing, obviously - a near classic, let down only by over-ambition in the design of the monster and, in terms of scale. A forty five minute piece of wit and pith which, to those that can think big, is big. It's got some fantastic dialogue too. 'Do you feel anything?' 'No.' 'You pants are so on fire!' There's Emma's line to Clara about The Doctor: 'Don't trust him. There's a sliver of ice in his heart.' And, Clara's anguished realisation of some of the necessary drawback's of time travel: 'Have we just watched the entire life cycle of Earth from birth to death? Are you okay with that?' That's Hide in a nutshell. Big ideas which, despite the small-scale construction, seem all the bigger for it. The universe, Hide seems to say, is often huge and sick and ghastly but there are parts of it which, if you give it a bit of work, actually aren't so bad. Still, I imagine some tosser of no importance is busy tonight proving all that wrong by writing an 'open letter' to Steven Moffat (because, they're too cheap to buy a stamp and make it a closed one and spare us all from having to read it) telling him all of the things that he's doing wrong. To which Moffat will, no doubt, smile (because he's a nice chap), neatly fold closed his laptop without further comment and then go off and polish his BAFTAs. Life, dear blog reader. There's those that know and those that don't know. And then, there's those that don't know they don't know.
It was yer actual Ian Hislop who provided this week's TV comedy line of the week on the latest episode of Have I Got News For You. When guest host Warwick Davis asked who hadn't been in attendance at Margaret Thatcher's funeral during the week, yer man Hizza replied: 'A lot of people didn't go. It was on a Wednesday and quite a lot of people have jobs. Not as many as before, but ...' Hislop also got the runner-up prize when guest Gyles Brandreth mentioned the latest issue of Private Eye, their 'Thatcher Death' special: 'I thought the reverent and sensible thing to do was produce an issue and then sell it for as much money as possible,' said Ian. 'And, it's what she would have wanted!'
The final four contestants in this years MasterChef competition are Siara Hamilton, Larkin Cen, Dale Williams and Natalie Coleman. Essex housewife Saira has been one of yer actual Keith Telly Topping's favourites all series. Her latest dish dish of Bengali street food consisted of deep fried pakoras, stuffed paratha (always a particular favourite of yer actual Keith Telly Topping let it be noted) and lamb kebabs with a coriander dipping sauce, a tomato chutney and a cup of spiced masala tea. She said that she wanted to summon up the vibrancy and colour of the Indian subcontinent and even through a cold screen of glass like the telly, she managed it brilliantly for this viewer at least. 'You're enjoying our little competition, aren't you?' asked Gregg Wallace, grinning all over his boat-race after he and John had swooned over the flavours Saira managed to pack into such a seemingly simple dish. 'I'm havin' a ball' replied Saira. I have to say, just about every dish this delightful lady has cooked on the show so far is the sort of thing that this blogger would be wolfing down, licking the plate and asking for seconds, and possibly thirds. The same can also be said of young Welsh solicitor, Larkin. Having wowed the judges earlier in the competition with his Asian food (this is the chap, remember, who managed to make a straight-forward duck curry, rice and chips into a thing of beauty which had three previous MasterChef champions singing his praises), this time he went for something a bit more radical, to prove that he wasn't, in his own words, 'a one trick pony'; a smoked paella made with chorizo, peas and two types of rice, with breast of guinea-fowl, lobster, black pudding and a citrus air (that's, essentially, a lemon foam to you and me, dear blog reader). 'I reckon your lobsters a little bit overcooked ... but the rest of it's bloody great, mate!' said John Tordoe. 'I don't like "clever" for no reason,' Gregg added. 'But I fall in love with "clever" that delivers beautiful flavoured food!' Saira and Larkin's colleague in the mass-catering round earlier in the week, Dale also came up with food that yer actual Keith Telly Topping would've been ordering off the menu and praising; a stacked chicken cheeseburger with coleslaw, chunky chips and a barbecue sauce, served with chicken drumstick 'lollipops' and crispy chicken skin. John and Gregg looked a bit sceptical whilst he was making it ('you wanna get through to the final of MasterChef by cooking us a chicken burger? Good luck, Dale!') but, the lad pulled it off beautifully. He did, as he said he would, 'make a burger look pretty.' 'You've made mayonnaise, great chips, barbecue sauce, you've boned, battered, bread-crumbed, puréed, built. I think it's a great example of how versatile you are as a cook,' said John. 'From really precise and really intricate to fun, exciting and crowd-pleasing.' Natalie's pan-roasted pigeon breast, served on a celeriac purée with orange-braised lentils, griddled chicory and roasted hazelnuts went down so well with both judges that it produced the first tears of the episode from the chef herself. She was, she said, relieved because this was the first time anyone other than herself has tasted this particular dish. As with that hapless lady from earlier in the competition, at least it passed the first test. John and Gregg didn't die. Indeed, they loved it. 'Bold and big and bordering on dangerous,' said John. 'I find it really exciting, I find it really delicious.' The three eliminated cooks in the final seven were, Ollie ('egg yoke and pear is not something I ever want to eat again' according to Tordoe), Rukmani (who, sadly, undercooked her partridge in an, otherwise, flawless and conceptually dazzling plate) and sulky singer-songwriter Shivi (who had a look on her face like she wanted to punch something - or someone - really very hard indeed, when John said that her venison needed more flavour). Quality entertainment, dear blog reader. The final is over three episodes next week.
Bloggers with a turnover of less than two million smackers annually and fewer than ten employees will be excluded from certain punitive elements of the proposed new press regulation regime, under a legislative amendment agreed by the three main political parties. For anyone that's interested, this would most definitely include From The North since yer actual Keith Telly Topping does have a turnover of less than two million smackers. About two million smackers less than two million smackers, as it happens. The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour have reached an agreement laying down the definition of what constitutes a 'micro business' that will be exempt from the government's plans which could allow courts to impose exemplary damages on newspapers who refuse to join an approved regulator and lose libel cases. Of course, the best way not to lose libel cases is not to write anything libellous on your blog in the first place. But, that's another matter entirely. Under the amendment to the crime and courts bill, which will be debated in the Commons on Monday, bloggers and small web businesses which cover news (which, I guess, does include From The North) and choose to join the regulator will also gain significant cost-protection benefits. The amendment appears to suggest that bloggers will not be covered by the costs penalty clauses if they are sued, even if they do not sign up to the new regulator. Under the proposed amendment a micro business is described as an entity that publishes news-related material in a multi-author blog on an 'incidental basis that is relevant to the main activities of the business.' Single author blogs are already exempt. The government has been holding a consultation on how best to construct a workable definition of small-scale online services, after concerns were raised that bloggers and tweeters may be caught by rules designed to apply primarily to larger news organisations. Scum phone-hacking bastards. For example. The proposal to introduce exemplary damages remains arguably the biggest stumbling block for the government gaining the backing of the newspaper industry. Earlier this week, the vile and odious rascal Miller, the lack of culture secretary, said that it was 'sticking to the plan' to introduce exemplary damages. Evan Harris, associate director of Hacked Off, the group campaigning for tighter press regulation, welcomed the proposed amendment: 'This is a very good result for bloggers almost all multi-author edited news blogs will not need to join an approved self-regulator in order to avoid cost penalties if sued in court. But in addition, any such news blogs who do choose to join, will get cost protection if a libel or privacy claimant chooses to sue them in court instead of using the arbitration scheme in the self-regulator.'

For today's Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day, dear blog reader, frankly any excuse for a bit of yer actual R Dean Taylor his very self.