‘Dead of Night: The Exorcism’ (BBC, 1972)

Our ‘Dramatic Spaces: The Imaginative World of the TV Studio’ film season opens at BFI Southbank tonight, with a screening of ‘The Exorcism’, Don Taylor’s play for made for the BBC2 horror anthology series Dead of Night. Over the course of the season we will be writing short posts about each play shown, and would welcome thoughts and responses from those who attend the screenings.

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The season opens with a striking example of Don Taylor’s mastery of close studio form, his ‘socialist ghost story’, The Exorcism, a chilling tale of two middle-class couples who become subject to a supernatural presence in a recently renovated 18th Century farmhouse. The terror of the haunting was achieved through Taylor’s skilful treatment of the characters within the confined studio interiors, which exploited the intimate visual language of the studio.

We decided to launch our season with The Exorcism for two reasons; to celebrate and honour Don Taylor, a passionate advocate of the imaginative potential of studio television drama as both writer and director; and because the play is a quintessential, perhaps perfect, studio television drama: a story that could not be made in any other form – film, radio or stage – without losing some of the unique power and focus of this version.

In his memoir Days of Vision (1990, Methuen) Don Taylor rhetorically asked what the television studio could offer that film could not. His reply was:

‘…an empty space. A prepared canvas ready to paint on; the vacuum of an open mind waiting to be filled. It can offer the landscape of the imagination, ready to be entered, a world inside the head as vivid, often more vivid than the world outside the eyes that the film camera photographs so faithfully. It can offer nothingness, waiting to become something, a world waiting to be created out of the chaos of four characterless walls, a shiny floor, and a grid of lights. It is something waiting to happen, a statement ready to be made. One object or person placed within it makes a quite specific and individual point. Two, and the play begins.’ (p. 171)

The Exorcism achieves its effects through three qualities particular to the aesthetic conditions of studio drama. The first attribute is closeness. The use of multiple cameras meant that directors could follow scenes from multiple perspectives at the moment of performance, able to move in and show performers in close-up scrutiny. This could create an unnerving sense of intimacy when watched by viewers in their own homes.

As the play progresses, much of its horror works through the power of the human face, via tight shots focusing us on the protagonists’ frightened reactions. In the opening scenes, wider shots are used to situate the characters within the space and alert us to the narrative significance of the house; hosts Edmund (Edward Petherbridge) and Rachel (Anna Cropper), show off their beautifully restored old property to friends, Dan (Clive Swift) and Margaret (Sylvia Kay), both couples admiringly gazing at, touching, and interacting with the rooms and fixtures.

In The Exorcism we do not initially see much of the characters in close-up until five minutes into the play, when Rachel sits at her clavichord – “just right for the cottage, small scale, intense”. We are only permitted to look into the characters’ faces once events start to become unsettling, observing the spontaneous nuances of their responses. By the time that Rachel becomes possessed this close observation has become relentless (barely cutting away from her for seven minutes) and unflinching (unable to turn away from her sweat drenched brow, foaming spittle and scrunched eyes).

Another quality of studio drama is its unique ability to convey interiors, especially rooms – suggesting how characters understand themselves through how they inhabit the environment of the rooms that they live and work in.

There are several reasons why studio television achieved this; the electronic nature of videotape meant that the images it recorded – in glowing colours, sharply defined to let viewers make out precise details of the set – were unlike the pictures that the film camera produces. The major television companies, especially the BBC, employed specialised design departments, working to the highest possible standards, applying a wealth of experience to programmes. And the episodic nature of much television fiction trained the viewer to understand characters through the rooms that they saw them in; when we think of Steptoe and Son, or Stan and Hilda Ogden, say, we tend to imagine them in their homes.

The drama of The Exorcism is dependent upon the viewer forming a sophisticated understanding of – and relationship with – the rooms of the cottage; initially as a sophisticated renovated space of imaginative interior decoration filled with the best 1972 mod cons; then as dangerous, confined place full of traps and nasty surprises; and finally as the site of terrible historical suffering. As Taylor’s direction gradually reveals more and more of the space of the house and its organisation, the viewer’s eye can’t help but roam around the rooms of the cottage, even if only half-consciously, picking up details of the décor; a decanter, a Christmas tree. Objects that will eventually become important to the plot – the clock and carving light – are initially shown for momentarily longer, enough to snag against the viewer’s imagination.

The character of Rachel is shown to have a greater receptiveness towards the house, and her relationship with the space is presented differently to the others. Rachel is the only character who we really see alone in a room and reacting to the space, when she enters the dining room with candles and senses something, and – when she cooks or plays the clavichord – the only character who we see working or creating inside the cottage.

As strange things start to happen, a growing sense of menace is generated through atmospheric lighting (after the electricity and phone line are lost), haunting music, and increasingly intense, scrutinising close ups of the protagonists faces. Rachel is recurrently framed looking slightly upwards and into space, as if gripped by the atmosphere of the room.

A third attribute of multi-camera studio drama is how the technique of switching from camera to camera within scenes could create tremendous dramatic rhythm. The mounting horror of The Exorcism is conveyed through a series of disrupted domestic rituals; a clavichord recital; sharing a bottle of wine. It is at these points when the rhythm of camera shots alters, changing to a quick series of close-ups that show the reactions of all parties, making the viewer aware of the seriousness of the situation. Unexpected cutting can also disrupt this rhythm of shots selected. For example, during the party game with the ice cube, a sudden split-second cutaway shot of Rachel’s reaction in another room disorientates the viewer and makes the scene even more frightening.

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The production is a testament to the power of close visual language, and the frisson of continuous performance recorded as live, both qualities engendered by the studio mode.

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3 Responses to ‘Dead of Night: The Exorcism’ (BBC, 1972)

  1. Steve says:

    An excellent summary of a play I have watched many times and which still captivates me.
    Did you spot, as Dan and Edmund stand by the fire trying to figure out whether there had been a power cut or not, the black almost-humanlike, shape move across screen in the background?
    I could never work out whether that was the spirit in the house coming to life (so to speak) or a production assistant who had wandered into the set.
    I prefer the former!

  2. Tony Lovell says:

    I watched this after an episode of Grand Designs in which a couple managed to blag hundreds of thousands of pounds within a few phone calls to rebuild a house they more or less let burn down, uninsured. Nothing changes.

  3. Gavin Lockey says:

    Thank you for your review. I saw this first as a teenager and the idea of these people being trapped stayed with me the rest of my life (I am now 52). What I would like to add to your piece is the impression of genuine devotion and honesty the actors gave to their parts. They really went for it. I think as well as the close ups, the thing that sub-consciously adds to the increasing sense of dread is the tension between the characters so obvious from a fine (if a little heavy in places) script. Cheers.

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