Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Things that go Bruce in the night

Clearing out my mother's house, we found this page, torn by me from a copy of TV Times 50 years ago. I never thought that I would ever see this again and finding it is something of a bonus, bringing back memories.


It's a piece about the ITV series Mystery and Imagination that was broadcast in 1966 on Saturday evenings, and this particular episode was the last in that season, and one that I, as a child, remember with such fondness – which was why I kept this page in the loft: a place I wasn't allowed to play and one that, because of its dark corners and moving shadows, had previously scared me witless.

The series was based on dramatisations of horror classics, with more than a smattering of M R James. I don't remember these being shown particularly late – perhaps 9pm, placing them past the horror watershed, but maybe I was allowed to stay up to watch them because it was a weekend. Or maybe they believed me when I said I liked horror stories.

The first one I can remember was of a ghoul that was haunting a library, reading a particular book, wearing a large cloak and hat. And when the protagonist tapped it on the shoulder, it turned to reveal a particularly horrible, partly-decomposed face. So much for 1960s' TV make-up. It would be 47 years before I finally tracked down the name of the story: The Tractate Middoth by M R James.

The episode that followed involved a young, orphaned lad going to live with some distant relative, and the ghastly vision of the ghosts of a boy and girl, wearing billowing shrouds and brandishing extra-long fingernails, walking through the swirling mist between the house and the chapel, about to rip out the heart of the evil man. (Strangely, the manservant in this was played by Freddie Jones, an actor who, many years later, my son worked with on Emmerdale.)

This story, as I later found, was another by James, Lost Hearts. The sight of those children wandering through the mist spooked me to the point where I dare not sleep. What made it worse in my bedroom was the reflection of the moonlight on a dressing table mirror that distorted against the ceiling to look coffin-shaped. Yet I had to keep watching the series. 

And then it came to the very last episode of the season – The Canterville Ghost. Based on a play by Oscar Wilde, it's about a ghost who is unable to frighten away visiting Americans, and which causes him unhappiness and frustration.

Now, as far as I was concerned this appealed to my junior schoolboy humour and put horror stories firmly where they belong: in the box of pretend and make-believe. Having seen this play I was no longer afraid of horror tales. Okay, I can be surprised – like we all can – but not frightened. Quite simply, I was cured.

Here's another thing: if you look closely at the image of the Canterville Ghost wearing his green velvet costume, you might just recognize the person playing him. Yes, it's Bruce Forsyth, starring in one of his rare acting roles. I seem to remember that he was rather good, and the fact that I have remembered him as Sir Simon de Canterville surely is testament to the man's little-used acting ability, that was instrumental in laying to rest a child's fear of horror stories.

Sweet dreams, everyone.