Saturday, May 04, 2013

The Crimson Horror: In Chocolate Town All The Trains Are Painted Brown

'No one who goes to live there ever seems to come out.' In tonight's episode of yer actual Doctor Who t'people of a Victorian Yorkshire mill town, Sweetville, are reet t'terrified when t'bodies start washing up from t'river. Bright red and t'wax-like, an'all, so they be. But, even though there's, seemingly, trouble at t'mill, wi' t'Doctor and t'Clara nowhere to be seen, 'appen it's up t'Silurian detective Madame Vastra - last seen in t'2012 Christmas special T'Snowmen - and her 'servant' (and t'lesbian lover) Jenny, not forgetting Strax t'Sontaran t'take centre stage as they attempt t'get t'bottom of t'mystery. It seems t'answer lies behind t'imposing gates of t'Sweetville mill, owned by t'plain-speaking Mrs Millyflower (played by her what used t'be Emma Peel). Right, that's that sorted. T'blogger now fancies t'Eccles cake. Ah'l see thi. But first ... Doctor Who has done t'horror before, of course, it's been one of the staples of the drama's - many - genre pastiches for several decades, flowering especially brightly in the 1967-68 period, again during the early eighties and, especially, a particularly fondly-remembered three year period from 1975 when the show was being produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script-edited by Robert Holmes. Controversy went hand-in-hand with the idea of scaring the buggering be'jesus out of ten year olds and making them shite in their own beds, of course and, as a consequence, since then the BBC's popular long-running family SF drama has - in relation to horror - occasionally flirted with form without ever, really, tapping into the substance of exactly what it is that makes us reach for the loo roll and leave all the lights on. Which brings us to yer actual Mark Gatiss who, long before he got to write for the show he'd loved since childhood, was already being acknowledged as one of Britain's foremost expects on the horror genre. He's the author and presenter of an acclaimed and award-winning series of BBC4 documentaries on that very subject as well as having co-created his own absurdist horror parody, the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol influenced grotesque, The League of Gentlemen. If pushed to say which he loves the most, Doctor Who or the chiller movies of Hammer, Amicus, Tigon and a plethora of other less well known British independent film companies of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s, I'm guessing Mark would probably explode like The Devil's Chutney, rather than give a straight answer. 'It's a little-celebrated fact that between the 1950s and the early 1970s, Britain became rather good at something,' Mark once noted in an article in the Gruniad Morning Star. 'This is, in itself, practically unheard of and to have such a sustained period of competence seems as far-off now as Wembley glory or the possibility of a good sitcom. What we cracked, making it into a genre very much our own, was the horror film.' Many of his own previous contributions to Doctor Who have been flecked with the influence of both horror movies themselves and some of their more celebrated source texts; the Gothic novelists of the 1820s, the Victorian penny dreadfuls and the ghost stories of MR James (1862-1936). There was The Unquiet Dead's combination of Dickensian fancy and ghostly possession; Night Terror's classic 'something nasty in the cupboard' pretences; The Idiot Lantern's Quatermass-riffs and idea of the sinister nature of technological advance. In short, Gatiss, the co-creator (with The Lord Thy God Steven Moffat) of this era's other great cross-genre pollination, Sherlock, simply loves making his audience jump.
Described as part of the drama itself as both 'a dark and queer business' and full of 'strange goings on', The Crimson Horror was, according to pre-episode reports, 'specially written' for mother and daughter Dame Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling. It was the first time that the two have ever worked together on-screen. Gatiss had recently appeared in a stage play with Stirling, who mentioned that she and her mother had never been in something together (other than, you know, the same house) and Mark - a gentleman as always - offered to 'tailor' them into his next Doctor Who episode, for which he already had a basic idea of a Victorian creeper. Stirling said that Gatiss had written 'an on-screen relationship between Ma and I that is truly delicious. We have never before worked together because the offers have not been tempting, but when such a funny and original script comes through you know the time has come.' Presumably, none of those previous offers included a storyline in which Dame Diana's character had blinded, tortured and - emotionally and physically - abused Rachael's, otherwise the pair might well have worked together far sooner. Gatiss also stated that he wanted to write 'a properly Northern Who', eee baaa gum, and revealed that Rigg was able to use her native Doncaster accent for just about the first time in her long and distinguished career.

Although it was filmed in Caerphilly and based in t'Yorkshire, the town of Sweetville is, fairly obviously, modelled on Bournville, the model village on the south side of Birmingham, best known for its original (and continued) connections with the Cadbury family. The town was created in the 1880s specifically to serve as a domicile for the workers in Cadbury's nearby chocolate factory where, each morning, the model workers all went to the model factory using the model train (that's not to be confused, of course, with the model train owned by the model child of the model worker and his model wife, not that the model worker's model wife works as a model, you understand ... oh dear, we're getting sidetracked). And giving, about a hundred years later, Elvis Costello a superb opening couplet for his song 'Little Palaces'. Actually, all of that is a trifle unfair - even though Cadbury's have undeniably become well-known child poisoners over the years, something which this particular ex-child, frankly, couldn't give a stuff about as he rather likes choccy. The Cadbury family were Quakers and, apparently, had a genuine care - borne, largely, out of religious conviction - for their workforce, who, in return for their labours, were treated with respect, given relatively high wages and good working conditions, certainly for the Victorian era; Cadbury's also pioneered pension schemes, joint works committees and a full staff medical service. So, the average model worker living in the model town of Bournville would, like as not, have been reasonably happy with his lot. Not so the model mill workers of Sweetville. 'Oh great, attack of the super models,' as it were.
Dame Diana Rigg. Where do we start, dear blog reader? Well, in 1965, basically when - then aged twenty seven and, already, a veteran of ten years of stage work - she was cast as Honor Blackman's replacement in The Avengers. Over the next two years in the fifty odd episodes of the celebrated ITV telefantasy series in which she appeared in as leatherette foiler of the dastardly plans of supervillains Emma Peel, Diana became, quite simply, a TV icon. I mean, sod yer X Factor winners and the girls from Hollyoaks, for two years in the mid-1960s, Diana Rigg was the second most recognisable woman in Britain, after the Queen. And, probably, the country's second biggest export (after The Beatles). Subsequent to all that, she was, very briefly, James Bond's wife (until nasty old Blofeld had her horribly killed before they'd even reached their honeymoon), appeared in some terrific movies (The Assassination Bureau, Theatre of Blood) and lots of well-remembered telly (Mother Love, Bleak House, The Mrs Bradley Mysteries) and is one of the foremost stage actresses of her last fifty years. But, to those of a certain age and with a certain blood pressure, she will always be The Queen of Sin, getting her whips out for the lads in Peter Wyngarde's hellfire dungeon. (That wasn't an episode of The Avengers, incidentally, just a particularly moist dream that yer actual Keith Telly Topping once had after eating a lot of Cheddar late one Friday night.)

'We are going to ... "The North."' Which brings us to a very tricky subject, Doctor Who's previous treatment of anywhere outside a thirty mile radius of London (or, now, Cardiff). As everybody born beyond the boundaries of this hallowed geographical area will be well aware, for most of the last near one hundred years, the BBC's collective attitude (and, indeed, that of all primarily London-based broadcasters and media) is that 'The North' is something which starts at Watford and ends at ... Iceland. Witness, for example, Doctor Who's previous forays into the 'It's Grim Oop North' territory. Most notably 1985's risible The Mark of the Rani and their hopeless attempts at 'Geordie', riven with obscenely obvious generic clichés straight out of When The Boat Comes In and woefully bad accents. Mark Gatiss, born and raised in Bishop Auckland, must feel this burning sense of injustice just as much as your average non-Home Counties Doctor Who viewer had always done. Because, like the chap once said, 'lots of planets have a North.' So, given the opportunity to create a story stripped of the usual Doctor Who cliché of everyone speaking the the most perfect Queen's English ('in quotations', as Joe Strummer once said), could he manage to do so without resorting to equally banal and obvious syntax horrors? Or, would it be 'business as usual,' in fact. Do you know, dear blog reader, in many ways, it was, actually, both! And, surprisingly, that worked.

'You are all I have, monster.' In a tale of hypocrisy against moral decay, full of cosy brilliance in displaying - proudly - its influences, I'll leave dear blog readers only to ponder very briefly on how characters in 1893 can be singing 'Jerusalem' when Sir Hubert Parry didn't actually write the tune to go with William Blake's poem until 1916. (Although the words, of course, with their allusions of 'dark Satanaic mills' fit in perfectly with Gatiss's story.) It's not important, really, yer actual Keith Telly Topping merely likes showing off his research, that's all. A bit like Mark Gatiss his very self, really. It's just, he's far better at that sort of thing than I. So, the fans get not one but two references to Tegan ('brave heart, Clara' really did make this blogger laugh a lot) and the average horror aficionado is treated to Gatiss pulling in all sorts of visual and thematic allusions to ... well, how many horror movie references did you spot, dear blog reader? (Yer actual Keith Telly Topping noted, in no particular order, The Stepford Wives, Horror Express, Taste The Blood of Dracula, The Oblong Box, The Innocents, The Masque of the Red Death, Frankenstein & The Monster From Hell, The Mummy, Carry On Screaming, Phantom of the Opera, The Tingler, Vertigo and Hands of the Ripper. There were probably half-a-dozen more too subtle for this blogger to catch.) There were also a couple of a neat - and dismissive - discussions on the improbability of optigram lore, constant allusions to the mysterious Mister Sweet ('the repulsive red leech'). And, there was Strax at his most militantly warmongering (at one point, he even threatens to shoot his fourth horse this week after it fails its task of getting him to Sweetville ... And he's not even hungry) which ends with him gaining a new, if you will, Tomtom satnav. 'Have you been eating Miss Jenny's sherbet fancies again?' Plus, of course, the fainting. Which was funny.

'Long story. I'll keep it short.' The Crimson Horror is a oddly structured, but curiously satisfying little piece of pithy whimsy. It's got Rigg and Stirling acting their little cotton socks off, along with the regulars (once they finally appear, twenty minutes in) and the semi-regulars. There's loads of great dialogue too, like the description of the dead bodies as 'glowing like something manky in the coal cellar.' The Doctor's desperate attempts at undercover ('the missus and I couldn't be more chuffed') battles for prominence with just about everything Dame Diana says. Especially 'kindly do not claw and slobber at my crinoline!' And: 'You know what these are? Wrong hands!'
Fundamentally, then, The Crimson Horror was deeply silly, full of outrageous character pieces, weird little non-sequitars and moments of quiet, sinister cleverness. And, other moments that'll just make you think Graham Chapman's about to walk through the door and say that there's trouble a t'mill followed by the observation that he didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition. No one does. What else, frankly, did you expect about a story concerning a 'yucky red parasite from the time of the dinosaurs pitching up in Victorian Yorkshire'? As The Doctor observes: 'Didn't see that one coming!' But, the entire episode justifies its existence with one, quite brilliant line: 'I'm The Doctor, you're nuts and I'm going to stop you.' In short, The Crimson Horror sees Gatiss his very self doing what Gatiss does best, providing the audience with horror in abundance, but horror in the grand tradition of Hammer and Universal, with a wink and a few pithy one-liners to underscore the nastiness. You wouldn't want it every week but, once in a while, it works terrifically well. 'Had enough of Victorian values for a bit'? Fine. Next week, it's The Cybermen.
ITV's three part drama The Ice Cream Girls finished with an overnight audience of 4.23m viewers on Friday. The final episode of the Brighton-set thriller was up just over two hundred thousand punters on the previous week's overnight figure, but down six hundred and forty thousand on its début. In the same timeslot on BBC1, a particularly fine episode of Have I Got News For You with guests Wor Ross Noble and the Reverend Richard Coles earned 4.47m and Not Going Out had 3.47m. Earlier, A Question of Sport attracted 2.69m at 7.30pm and the start of a new series of Would I Lie To You? was watched by 2.83m an hour later. The Graham Norton Show had an audience of 3.02m at 10.45pm. On BBC2, The Genius of Marie Curie - The Woman Who Lit Up The World was seen by 1.42m at 9pm. The channel's seemingly never-ending coverage of World Championship Snooker grabbed 1.52m in the preceding two hours. The Martin Lewis Money Show brought 3.17m to ITV at 8pm and movie The Fast and The Furious attracted eight hundred and fifty two thousand from 10.45pm. Meanwhile, Channel Four's Ben Earl: Trick Artist remained steady on nine hundred and twenty thousand punters at 9pm and Alan Carr's Chatty Man was watched by 1.1m at 10pm. Classic Britcom movie Hot Fuzz, starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, performed best across the digital channels, earning six hundred and fifty three thousand viewers for ITV2 at 9pm.