Network continue their quest to release the obscurest shows from British television’s past. I’m fairly knowledgeable about cult TV but I’ll admit I had never heard of The Clifton House Mystery until I received it as a Christmas present. One of a series of children’s supernatural dramas produced by HTV in the Seventies and it would seem the most obscure. Is it a lost gem or a forgettable turkey?
Conductor Timothy Clare, his wife Sheila and his three children Jenny, Steven and Ben move into a large detached house in Bristol. They briefly meet its previous inhabitants, the elderly Mrs Betterton and her granddaughter Emily, but she seems oddly anxious to leave a house she has lived in most of her life. Emily meanwhile tells Jenny in secret to look out for “the Grey Lady”. Steven is inexplicably drawn to buy an old Victorian soldier’s helmet being sold at the house auction. As the family being to settle in, a series of supernatural events afflict them. Objects fly out of their hands, Steven sees a screaming man’s face in the helmet and Jenny does indeed meet a ghostly elderly woman. After a dinner party for Timothy’s prospective American agent goes frighteningly wrong, the family turn to an amateur ghost hunter Milton Guest for help.
Watching The Clifton House Mystery today, the first aspect that struck me was the almost complete lack of any emotional sub-plot for the protagonists. If this was being made today, there would definitely be a link between the emotional health of the family and the hauntings. Perhaps friction between the parents who seem rather caught up in Timothy Clare’s career and their neglected children? Or teenage growing pains for Jenny being linked to poltergeist activity. Or generally the lack of any obvious affectionate behaviour between anyone. Then there is Milton Guest, a middle-aged apparent bachelor, who admits he’s never seen a ghost, even though he lectures on them. Here’s a character who could have been portrayed as a rather tragic or suspicious, like George Tully in Sapphire and Steel, but instead is almost immediately taken at face value after a few polite protests. But all that is left deep down in sub-text in favour of plot exposition and the most straightforward of reactions to everything from the haunting to the state of the house.
Simply because this is a children’s drama does not automatically prevent it from being scary. Executive producer Patrick Dromgoole had previously overseen such memorable teatime chillers as Children of the Stones and King of the Castle, and would go on to produce Robin of Sherwood in the Eighties. All these programmes had great atmosphere and memorable moments of fear. But here is a series that seems to actively pull back from anything genuinely scary. It’s two best horror moments, the ghostly screaming face, and later a moment when Jenny walks into her brothers’ bedroom to find the Grey Lady standing watching them, who then turns to look directly at her, are cliffhangers which are promptly cut away from, with no real follow-up. Mostly the story plods through its six episodes, steadily building up its story with no real urgency. The family might be disturbed and inconvenienced by the haunting, but there’s little real threat.
This series belongs to that sub-genre where the ghosts act as a window into history, rather than being malevolent creatures. In this case the children and the audience learn about the Bristol riots of 1831, when 4th and 13th Dragoons were summoned by the mayor to quell a mob which had laid siege to the city hall whilst protesting about their lack of representation in parliament. The Dragoons had eventually charged the crowd resulting in 4 deaths and over 80 wounded.
Playing ghost hunter Milton Guest, Peter Sallis is the only really recognisable face in the cast, and he delivers another one of his affable Yorkshireman performances. The four children all give those kind of stage school performances that you often find in children’s television, competent but not very naturalistic. Probably the best scenes of the series are actually in the first episode before the hauntings start, as a group of nosy, gossipy locals and the family pour over the contents of the house auction. At this point the show feels as though it could go into Jack Rosenthal territory, before the main fantasy thread appears.
The Clifton House Mystery was co-written by Harry Moore, a writer and producer often associated with Sherlock Holmes related dramas, as well as another children’s ghost series The Georgian House. His co-writer was Daniel Farson, a great-nephew of Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula, and best remembered as British television’s first onscreen investigative journalist.
The only extra on the DVD is a gallery of some publicity and set photos of the cast. I love the way Network are releasing so much vintage television on DVD, obscure discoveries as well as series which already have a fandom. But not everything vintage is automatically great and The Clifton House Mystery is nowhere near as interesting or stylish as other supernatural titles as Sky, Shadows, or Sapphire and Steel. Give this one a miss unless you are a completest like me.