by Michael J Bird
Plenty of changes came with Out of the Unknown‘s fourth and final season in 1971, and a new title sequence was just the start. It is an effective montage of surreal imagery that creates an uncanny mood without being too random. An infinite series of opening windows, a flower a hatching from an egg, a face pushing out a white surface. Helping immeasurably is the haunting music – Lunar Landscape by Roger-Roger, which had previously been heard in The Prisoner. More significantly, with Irene Shubik now departed and no more of her curated scripts left in the cupboard, this season saw a decisive move away from science fiction towards the supernatural and psychological suspense. This redesign was suggested by Head of Plays Gerald Savory although publicly in the Radio Times, producer Alan Bromley suggested that the reality of NASA’s Apollo programme had taken the gloss from stories set in space. Personally I think that was a rather spurious argument, not least since it ignores the fact that many of the series’ were set on Earth and that the genre encompassed far more than spaceships. To be fair though it is true that the early Seventies did see a resurgence of public interest in the supernatural.
A more likely reason for the change in style was the increasing difficulty in finding stories to adapt which were feasible on their budget, timeframe, and which did not repeat previous episodes’ plots. Already they had had to remake two old ITV Out of this World scripts in the third season. It’s significant that only one episode this season was adapted from a literary source, Deathday by Angus Wilson, with all the rest being original teleplays. It would be simpler for Bromely and script editor Roger Parkes to approach a TV writer and ask for a supernatural story, that read a hundred or so short stories and novels in search of material, which then had to be adapted for the box. Interestingly Irene Shubik herself would venture into the same psychological realm herself with the 1973 BBC2 anthology The Mind Beyond.
Newly married Eric and Diana arrive at their new home, a large detached renovation in the middle of the countryside. On the surface their life is perfect, they are both beautiful, in love, he is a successful photographer, and Diana feels a special connection with the old house. But there are shadows too. Diana was raped by a stranger when she was a schoolgirl and the trauma has left her terrified of intimacy. A strange figure starts to appear in Eric’s photographs, always watching Diana. Then she starts sleepwalking and even attempts to kill Eric whilst in trance. Can psychiatrist and ghost hunter Dr Philimore help them exorcise this ghostly intruder?
To Lay a Ghost is an uncomfortable watch, even more so today than I think it was in 1971, due to its strain of misogyny and victim blaming. Yet at the same time it is very well made episode (with one exception) especially the outdoor filmed sequences. Ken Hannam gives these a real cinematic sense with the way he uses the camera to stalk the characters, quite literally during the point-of-view opening where the rapist follows short skirted Diana through the woods. The studio interiors are more traditional but still keep the atmosphere of unease going. That one exception is a moment when the ghost throws a light stand at Dr Philimore. The camera lingers on Peter Barkworth clearly standing waiting for his cue to duck. The climatic scene where the ghost moves in a series of flash images is simple but very effective.
Once the disturbing prologue depicting Diana’s sexual assault is over, most of the episode settles into a fairly conventional modern haunted house drama. The mysterious figure appearing in the photographs, and Diana’s attacks of sleepwalking (and sleepwalking attacks) eventually prompt Eric to look into the history of the house and discovering a historical murder involving the mistress of the house and the gardener – Thomas Hobbs. Peter Barkworth arrives as an avuncular ghost hunter, sets up his equipment and encounters poltergeist activity.
Diana is played by a young and exquisitely beautiful Lesley Anne Down, near the start of her career that would lead on to movies and a long career in Hollywood TV mini-series and soap operas. By contrast Iain Gregory, playing Eric, was almost at the end of his. Soon after appearing in Out of the Unknown he left the acting business to become an acclaimed sculptor in ceramics.
It is in the final quarter that the episode becomes really objectionable and I have to warn you that to explain it I am going to have to spoil the ending in the next paragraph or so.
Eric tells Philimore about Diana’s frigidity, a legacy of her schoolgirl trauma. He says has always tried to be understanding about her refusal to have sex. To which Philimore replies, “Yes I think that’s the problem.” He has diagnosed that Diana can only be aroused by a man who rapes her, that in fact she has been sub-consciously looking for a man to abuse her. Her latent psychic sensibilities have made a connection with the ghost of the predatory Hobbs. When Eric tries to make his wife leave the house she starts acting like an evil femme fatale, taunting him for his reluctance to force himself, before laughing mockingly as he angrily leaves. The episode closes with Diana’s excited pleadings as Hobbs’ ghost approaches her.
Whilst it would not be impossible to write a drama about a woman with such mental health problem, it would need to be far more sensitive and researched than what we have here. To Lay a Ghost treats Diana’s desire for abuse as a cheap twist to a conventional ghost story. Playing into the fictional porn fantasy that women want to be dominated and violated is tawdry and possibly dangerous. Even if the episode depicts the ghost as sinister, there’s an underlying judgement that Diana has brought her suffering on herself by her deviance. This episode left a decidedly sour taste in my mouth, despite its impressive technical qualities.