Flowers

Flowers, first broadcast in 6 parts in the UK on Channel 4 last April, begins with children’s author Maurice Flowers (played by Julian Barratt) heading towards a tree at the bottom of his garden with a rope in his hands. The author of the much-loved Grubbs books about a family of goblins, he’s run out of ideas, and run out of excuses for his publishers, so he’s decided to hang himself. But he can’t even do that right, so he picks himself up, hides the rope, and goes off to mope in his writing shed, unaware that his aged mother was watching.

Meanwhile his music teacher wife Deborah (played by Olivia Colman) is desperately frustrated by the utter lack of affection her eternally depressed husband shows her. They’re supposedly in a Bohemianly ‘open’ relationship, and she pretends she’s taking full advantage of it, but in fact the extent of her dalliance with the opposite sex is to take the neighbour’s builders a tray of tea and cakes, and pretend everything they say is a wildly suggestive remark (it isn’t), while pointedly ignoring the only one of them who actually fancies her.

Their children aren’t much better. A pair of mid-twenties live-at-homes, daughter Amy is a bedroom-bound Kate Bush, son Donald a hopeless inventor. Constantly bickering if not actually fighting (‘You don’t shoot family!’), both of them fancy neighbour Abigail, whose father George — the one real monster in the story — is a plastic surgeon who sees no situation (including the Flowers’ disastrous anniversary party, and, soon after, the hospital bedside of their dying mother) as inappropriate for a barrage of sexual innuendo and attempted seduction, all in the name of drumming up business.

The whole situation’s one massive emotional powder keg. The spark comes when, during Deborah’s desperate attempt to hold a party to celebrate her and Maurice’s anniversary, Maurice’s dementia-addled mother gets up on a chair with the noose her son used to try and hang himself (which was once part of a stage act she performed with her magician husband), falls off, and has to be hospitalised, but not before being found by one of Deborah’s young music students. (To avoid traumatising the boy, Maurice explains the noose away as a ‘magic snake’, just one of many avoidances of the truth which go on to have potentially disastrous consequences.)

Flowers is a wonderfully dark comedy about a very dysfunctional, emotionally messy, flailing and floundering family. Virtually all of the main characters have some sort of deeply painful secret and a desperate need to share it, along with a complete inability to do so. (The son Donald has, instead, an inability not to open his mouth and give away both his and everyone else’s most intimate secrets, usually at the moment when doing so will help the least.)

Julian Barratt’s Maurice is a big, bearded, awkwardly shy man, constantly brandishing a rictus grin of emotional mortification, incapable of admitting the depths of his own despair, slouching around in a chunky cardigan like an embodiment of the “dishevelled British countryside aesthetic, that sort of folky heritage thing” that writer/director Will Sharpe (in an interview on Channel 4’s site) says he was trying to evoke in the series, with its tattily Bohemian country cottage home.

Sharpe himself plays Maurice’s live-in Japanese illustrator Shun. Shun is the only person who’s actually willing to listen to everyone’s problems. He’s desperate to be of any help he can, but his every attempt to understand what’s needed misfires, in the end draining even his seemingly boundless optimism. (And he, too, has his secret, a story that remains untold for so long simply because nobody in the Flowers family pays any attention to him.)

Despite all the despair, despondency, and difficulties with communication, Flowers is, I think, ultimately uplifting, even life-affirming, but only once it’s gone through some pretty dark areas. Its depiction of Maurice’s depression is certainly uncompromising. After describing what he’s going through as being like facing ‘an invisible monster with no shape, no form, but it’s loud, and fierce, and it never ends’, Deborah asks:

‘So how do we defeat this monster?’
‘We can’t.’
‘There must be some way. All monsters have a weakness. Maybe it’s love? Maybe love is how we defeat this monster, together?’

Which would, normally, be the point where we’d find some relief, some hope. But instead, all Maurice can say is:

‘Love makes it worse.’

I suspect it’s not for everyone, but it certainly worked for me, and was one of the TV highlights of 2016. At the moment, it’s still available to watch on Channel 4’s website.

Timeslip

timeslip_dvdBroadcast in 26 episodes from the end of September 1970 to March 1971 (only one of which survives in colour), Timeslip was intended as an ITV rival to Doctor Who. Its two mid-teen leads, Simon Randall (Spencer Banks) and Liz Skinner (Cheryl Burfield), discover the ability to slip through a time barrier they find by the fence of an old military base while on holiday. In the first adventure, it takes them back to the Second World War, when the base was in use as a research outfit. The kids arrive at the same time as some disguised German soldiers who are intent on nabbing some of the latest British technology. The bounders!

A few things made the series immediately different. Usually, kids’ time travel (or any time travel — The Time Tunnel, for instance, or Doctor Who) takes its heroes to the distant past or distant future, but Timeslip stuck to the 20th Century (including trips to a pair of alternative 1990s), with its final adventure being set in 1965, a mere five years in the show’s past. In addition, Liz & Simon are constantly meeting the same people in different adventures, or different future versions of them. In the first story, ‘The Wrong End of Time’, Liz meets her as-yet unmarried father (just before he has an amnesiac episode that explains why he doesn’t remember meeting her), while in the two 1990s adventures, Liz gets to meet two entirely different versions of herself, as well as a future version of her mother. The great thing is that Liz hates the first version of herself she meets, and Beth (as she’s come to be known) hates her back:

Beth: At a certain time in my life I had to take some important decisions. Break with the past, become a different kind of person.

Liz: But why? What’s the matter with me? I’m still as I always was. I don’t want to change.

Beth: My dear, I was a little idiot when I was you. I had to do something about forcing myself to grow up, finding a purpose to my existence. We can’t be fools all our lives, I’m afraid.

While, in the last episode of that adventure — ‘The Time of the Ice Box’ — Liz gets her own back:

Beth: (of Liz) She’s nothing to do with me.

Liz: But I am. I am you. Only you’re not me and that’s the trouble. You’ve changed too much.

Things get complicated once Liz & Simon realise they can change the futures they visit by going back to their own era and making sure certain things don’t happen. After ‘The Time of the Ice Box’, Liz & Simon take another trip to the 1990s, only to find it now ‘The Year of the Burn-Up’, a technocratic future where a sabotaged climate control is making a serious mess of things. (But at least, here, Liz likes her future self.)

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As if the protagonists meeting various versions of their future selves isn’t complicated enough, there are also a number of clones of various people. (The first one we meet is the Director of the ‘Ice Box’ research establishment. Played by John Barron, who I’ve only ever encountered before as CJ in The Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin, he comes across as an unintentionally comic version of CJ, with an attempt at an American accent. I kept expecting him to say, ‘I didn’t get where I am today by slipping through time barriers…’) And, once it’s clear some of these futures are only possible futures, Simon starts talking about there being both clones and projected clones, who are only possible-future clones… And this in a final story appropriately titled ‘The Day of the Clone’.

‘The Day of the Clone’ is, I think, the best story of the lot. (It’s also the only one by Victor Pemberton, writer of the Doctor Who story ‘Fury from the Deep’; the other Timeslip stories are by Bruce Stewart, and can get a little repetitive with all their being captured/breaking free/getting recaptured loops.) If nothing else, this last story ties up the whole serial neatly, which is some feat, considering the number of different timelines, and different versions of people, we’ve encountered.

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By the time of ‘Day of the Clone’, Timeslip is taking a decidedly anti-technocratic stance. ‘The Time of the Ice Box’ takes place in a future research establishment trying to develop an immortality drug, HA57, under the command of an autocratic Director who believes his computer to be faultless, and so it can only be deliberate sabotage by his employees that’s making things go wrong. In ‘The Year of the Burn-up’, there is actual sabotage to the climate control computer, but all the technocrats are too busy hunting down the un-sociables and outcasts who refuse to be part of their Brave New World to realise the sabotage is happening, till it’s too late. In ‘The Day of the Clone’ the technocratic future is the present, with a secret government-funded research base, R1, being used to develop the same immortality drug, HA57, as appeared in ‘Time of the Ice Box’, only they’re testing it on student volunteers, and it’s having the opposite to its intended effect. To keep the volunteers quiet, they’re given ‘hypnotherapy’.

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It’s here you get a sense of the mood of the times. One of the young volunteers, a student who thought she’d do a bit of good for society in her university holidays, learns what’s been done to her, and reveals the growing feeling, by the start of the 1970s, that early-60s optimism, with its faith in paternalistic governments and the forward march of technology, was getting a little tarnished:

Maria: Trust you? Trust… That’s something I’m rapidly forgetting. I came to this place with hopes. We all did. Hopes we could help build a decent future. Now you tell us we’re only helping to destroy the future. Well I don’t know who to trust or believe anymore.

Key to all this is the often-ambiguous character of Commander Traynor, who encourages the children’s time-hopping in the hope of learning a few technological secrets from the future, and who becomes an increasingly darker figure as the series progresses.

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Timeslip stands on the border between being a fun kids’ SF-adventure series and the slightly weirder, more idealistic one-off productions of the 70s, like Children of the Stones, The Changes, and so on. Alistair D McGown and Mark J Docherty, in The Hill and Beyond: Children’s Television Drama, say Timeslip was ‘perhaps the most ambitious serial of the 70s in storytelling terms at least’. It backed its science fictional ideas with advice from Geoffrey Hoyle (son of, and collaborator with, SF author and astronomer Fred Hoyle), and managed to sidestep becoming a mere attempt at cloning Doctor Who by tying its stories up so tightly with the possible future and actual past selves of its key characters, something most SF (apart from Back to the Future, which shows how much fun can be got from the idea) does its utmost to avoid.

Sky

SkySky (first broadcast in 1975) manages to tick just about every box in the 70s kids’ TV checklist: standing stones, the next step in human evolution, psychic powers, Merlin, magic, advanced technology masquerading as magic, warnings about mankind’s over-reliance on technology, environmentalist predictions of coming disaster, even a hint of class tension.

It starts with the blue-eyed, golden-haired alien Sky (and if he looks a bit like an Axon, perhaps that’s because the show’s writers, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, wrote The Claws of Axos for Doctor Who) appearing in the middle of an English forest, only to be immediately attacked by the surrounding greenery. Found by young Arby Venner, the leaf-smothered Sky pleads: “Take me away from living things.”

An alien and far-future time-traveller, Sky has missed his intended era, and now finds himself rejected by the very life-force of a world he does not belong to. Begging to be taken to “the Juganet” (“The Juganet is a circle. The circle is a machine. The machine is a crossover point. The point is a paramagnetic intersection. That is where I must be.”), which he can use to jump to the correct time, he claims (when asked by Arby’s sister, Jane) that despite his seemingly helpless state, “I suppose, in your terms, I am to be a god.”

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Meanwhile, the “animus of the organism” — the riled life-force of our world — manifests itself as the black-cloaked Ambrose Goodchild, whose purpose is to track down and do away with this unwanted alien by any means, be it by summoning more smothering greenery, or posing as a surgeon so he can operate on him. Arby, Jane, and the slightly posher boy next door, Roy Briggs, do their best to help the importunate Sky, despite having no idea what he’s on about most of the time.

Luckily, there’s a mad Welshman to hand. (And that’s another 70s kids’ TV box checked: mad Welshman who knows.) Old Tom may be touched in the head (“He’s supposed to be simple.” “No. It is you who are complicated.”), but he can hear Sky’s thoughts and see Sky’s telepathic pictures, and he once visited a place that looks like this Juganet thing, though he can’t recall where, or what, it was. So Arby and Jane borrow their dad’s Land Rover (they’re late teens: Arby drives a Land Rover and Roy’s got a motorbike), kidnap mad Tom and the hospitalised Sky, and take them on a jaunt to Glastonbury Tor. Which, it turns out, isn’t the Juganet, but is getting close.

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Sky is a bit like E.T. Only, whereas E.T. isn’t above a little emotional bonding while he tries to phone home, Sky is only interested in his human helpers when he wants rescuing. Once he’s recovered, he wants to be left alone so he can find the Juganet and leave this age that he knows only — and ominously — as “the Decline”. His task is to help humankind after “the Chaos”, not before it. As far as he’s concerned, before it, we’re beyond help.

Sky is, it seems, intended as a chastening reminder that our modern age is but one tiny step — and, most likely, a mis-step — on its way to some future evolution we can’t even begin to appreciate. He believes “It is the destiny of all intelligent beings to stand outside space and time,” and that modern man’s mistake is to “believe in machines”:

“You do not reach the stars with rockets, any more than you invent radios by shouting at the sky.”

Goodchild, on the other hand, seems even more reactionary:

“…the way to intelligence is the way to destruction… You have made man an alien. An alien force throttling life on this planet.”

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Sky could almost be a prelude to The Changes, shown at the start of the same year (Sky was ITV, The Changes BBC). The coming “Chaos” could be the “Changes”, in which a Merlin-like force (Goodchild’s first name, Ambrose, links him with Merlin) initiates a UK-wide revolt against machines. Both shows seem to be both rejecting hippie back-to-nature idealism (Sky is taken in, briefly, by a hippie couple awaiting a mystic traveller foretold in the prophecies of Merlin; he repays their kindness by disillusioning them, then attracting enough creeping greenery to destroy their caravan), while also wagging the finger at our love of technology.

What happened between the 1970s and the 1980s, when the whole idea of technology as a step too far seems to have been quietly dropped? (As were standing stones, and mad Welshmen.) There’s a real feeling that these 70s kids’ TV shows — Sky, The Changes, to a lesser extent The Moon Stallion — were grappling with issues that aren’t to be found in their 80s equivalents (The Moon Dial, Elidor, The Box of Delights), which were just as, if not more, magical in content (no more technology masquerading as magic, though — it was pure magic all the way), but don’t seem to be addressing social issues beyond the coming-of-age adventures of their protagonists. And so, while perhaps those 80s shows are that much more timeless, they don’t necessarily have the unity, depth, and cultural relevance of the best of the 70s ones. Or is that just my own nostalgia?

Three Types of Ghost Story

Hill Woman in BlackI’ve been reading a few ghost stories lately. Most recently Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (having already seen Nigel Kneale’s 1989 TV film, and the recent Hammer version), though I found it wanting in a way I didn’t with, say, Dark Matter, or my recent re-read of The Turn of the Screw. Thinking about why this was has led to a little bit of theorising about three types of ghost stories and how they work. So here goes.

The first, and purest, type of ghost story revels entirely in the protagonist’s horror of the supernatural. To make it work, the ordinariness of both the protagonist and their everyday world has to be clearly established, so when the supernatural makes its appearance, it feels truly weird and frightening. In this type of ghost story, the ‘ghost’ doesn’t even have to be a ghost, in the sense of a undead human spirit. M R James’s stories are probably the best example of this type, and his ‘ghosts’ are more often demons or elementals — embodied curses or prohibitions — and when they are human, as in, for instance, ‘Number 13’ or ‘Count Magnus’, they’re often supernaturally-tinged sorcerers or necromancers. This type of ghost story is all about technique — the way the supernatural is hinted at, built up, and finally revealed. The only emotion required of the protagonist is terror; details of his or her inner life just get in the way. You don’t get a lot of human insight from M R James’s stories, but you do get a good ghost story.

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from Nigel Kneale’s 1989 adaptation of The Woman in Black

The second type is as much about the protagonist’s horror at the display of human qualities, such as despair or sorrow, driven to such an extreme they’ve become supernatural. The Woman in Black is of this type. (The book is, anyway. I’d say the 2012 Hammer version, upping the cinematic shock value, turned the Woman into a far more demonic creature than she is in the book.) The bulk of conventional Victorian ghost stories are of this type, too. There, a ghost lingers beyond death because either it has been wronged, or has done wrong, and needs to set things right before it can move on. With The Woman in Black, there’s no longer that Victorian feeling of a moral order keeping certain dead souls from moving on till they’ve done what they’re supposed to; rather, it’s the Woman herself, so consumed by sorrow, anger and the need for revenge that she can’t pass on. The thing about this type of ghost story is that the protagonist is still looking on the ghost as something separate — as purely a horror. Things change slightly in the last chapter of The Woman in Black (the narrator comes to experience something of what made the Woman what she is) but not enough to take this story to the next type; the Woman is still seen as something exceptional and horrific, a twisted and rare form of human being, something to be pitied and feared, not empathised with.

The Haunting of Hill House coverThe third type is about how the protagonist’s own despair or sadness is brought to the fore by encounters with a ghost, until they experience it as a manifestation of their own inner world. The ghost still exists to embody (in a ghostly, disembodied way) supernaturally-distorted human qualities, but as much as the protagonist is haunted by the ghost, they’re haunted by something inside themselves too. The ghost and the protagonist’s inner life become entangled to the point where they’re indistinguishable. This is the type of story where the ghost needn’t exist at all — or it can exist in that Tzvetan Todorov hinterland where the story never makes it clear whether the ghost is a ‘real’ ghost or is just an externalisation of the protagonist’s own mental state. Listing examples, I find all my favourites: The Haunting of Hill House, The Influence, The Turn of the Screw.

It has to be said these three types have permeable walls. (Ghosts being ghosts, they’re not going to be stopped from wandering through walls anyway.) Jonathan Miller, after all, turned M R James’s ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ from a ghost story of the first type to the third, by emphasising how the basic character-type of so many of M R James’s protagonists (academic, reserved, distant and somewhat disapproving of lesser human beings) is exactly what makes them so vulnerable to the terror of an isolating ghostly visitation.

Woman in Black 2012Overall, I tend to like examples from the first and third types. The first work best as short stories — shocks work best when kept short. (Cinematic ghost stories, more and more, tend to be overlong examples of the first type, with nothing but shock after shock after shock. I ended up fast-forwarding much of the second half of the 2012 Woman in Black, searching for morsels of story, because I got bored of being supposedly shocked.) The third type mixes the supernatural with the psychological, which is how I prefer it, and this tends to be best when done at length, with plenty of build-up to establish both the protagonist’s psychology and the ‘normality’ of their world.

The trouble, for me, with the second type, is it’s basically disapproving. It’s about marking certain humans (undead ones, admittedly) as separate from ‘us’ (as represented by the protagonist and the rest of a quietly-ordered, functioning society). It seems to be saying that most of us don’t experience extremes of emotion, particularly negative emotion, so we can safely regard those who do as alien, other, horrific. But saying this is also saying that as soon as we experience such extremes, we have to regard ourselves as now separate, alienated, and horrific, too. This is perhaps a very English thing, where reserve and social propriety can make for a ridigly-defined norm, where extreme emotion is met with an embarrassment and disapproval close to horror — meaning you have to repress such emotions, to the point of being haunted by them. Perhaps that’s why the English write so many ghost stories.