Saturday, 2 January 2010

A lukewarm chiller

I was looking forward to the BBC's adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. After all, costume drama is a strength of the BBC. But I was disappointed. And I can't have been the only one. It apparently gathered 4.8 million viewers eager for a chill at Christmas.

I had been a little concerned when I read that the setting for the book had been moved from the 1890s to the 1920s. The story seemed so fixed in that buttoned-up world of Victorian England, that the shift seemed counter-productive. Most of the atmosphere of the book rests on that claustrophobic, repressed, straight-laced backdrop.

The reason for the move seemed to be about giving a kind of spurious added dimension to Quint's behaviour - that the house was devoid of men (because of the war), and to allow for the addition on a wholly unnecessary madhouse scene at the beginning and end. The subtlety of James was obviously considered to confusing for the likes of us. Much better for the governess to be unequivocally sex-starved and for Quint to be a serial rapist. It's clearer innit?

But I would have forgiven them such clunky devices if they provided us with even one single solitary scary moment. But no. They had clearly watched The Others but learned nothing about how to induce a chill. It's like they expended all their effort on the additions and forgot it was meant to be creepy. The ghosts even had a ghostly glow around them like something from a 1960s children's TV programme - so that we knew they were ghosts. And inevitably we had to see Quint having sex. We have to be shown everything now because we are too stupid to have things alluded to.

It made me quite cross. Not just because I write chillers myself and am naturally a bit of ghost story geek, but because the BBC used to do so much better with so much less. The production values of The Turn of the Screw were far higher than their adaptation of Dickens' The Signalman, say, from the 70s and yet The Signalman was far, far better. 4.8 million viewers hungry for a good-old fashioned ghost story at Christmas. Maybe next year.

In the meantime, get yourself a copy of The Innocents directed by Jack Clayton and see Deborah Kerr showing how it's done.

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