❉ We look back at one of the scariest of all ITV Children’s Dramas.
When I was a young, idealistic and devastatingly handsome English teacher, my head of department asked me which book I’d like to ‘do’ with my Year 7 class as a ‘class reader’. He was an unbelievably staid, Tom-and-Barbara type of bloke, and as middle-aged as it was possible to be, but he was also a massive fan of ‘John Peel music’, and fearing the possible laughter of the hard-nosed record indie record store (Probe, Liverpool) assistants, would send me to purchase such eclectic fare as Elvis Hitler, Momus and Gaye Bikers on Acid whenever I was ‘in town’. Every time I returned with an album, I’d tease him by threatening to reveal the contents of the bag in front of the equally sedate middle-aged ladies who made up the rest of the department. I remember him almost having a heart attack on the spot when I edged up the top two inches of Big Black’s deliberately confrontational album ‘More Songs About F*cking’.
I’m mad, me.
Anyway, the book I chose was Catherine Storr’s wonderful 1958 novel Marianne Dreams. I’d read the book, but like a generation of committed 1970s ITV children’s drama fans, I vividly remembered Ruth Boswell’s poo-your-pants scary TV adaptation from 1972.
I remember the series being in colour (we didn’t have a phone or fridge in those days, but I’d begged my mum and dad to rent the biggest-possible colour TV set to offset the problems of long distance communication and faster-than-usual food decomposition in our house), but the only-existing DVD version of the series is a visually dismal, low contrast monochrome recording salvaged by Network TV from ATV’s archives.
But such memory-dampeners failed to stop my enjoyment upon watching the series again after some forty-odd years; and though as miserable as the worst of sins, Escape into Night is resolutely cult, and absolutely great.
In the book, Marianne Austen is bed-ridden due to some unspecified illness, and the novel seems to suggest that Marianne’s bad-temper and tetchiness are by-products of both her sickness and incarceration in her tiny, but very middle-class house. In the TV adaptation, Marianne is bed-ridden following a pony-riding accident and her bad temper and tetchiness are down to her being a spoilt, bad-tempered, tetchy little shit.
Marianne whiles away her time drawing in a special sketch pad. A ‘magic pencil’ unearthed in a sewing tin leads her to drawing a typical Playschool type house, which she further embellishes with a drawing of boy staring out from an upper storey window.
And Marianne dreams…
In her dream, Marianne is outside a physical manifestation of her drawing, looking up at a miserable-looking boy who is trying to tell her to go away for her own safety. Mark is the representation of a another bed-ridden pupil being taught by Marianne’s peripatetic teacher Miss Chesterfield (a nice performance from the then Mrs Waterman, Patricia Maynard). Although we don’t get to see him in ‘real time’, it is obvious from Miss Chesterfield’s indiscreet confessions that Mark is seriously ill and probably dying. (My goodness, I loved this sort of stuff when I was a child!)
Marianne draws a door handle and some stairs in her sketch book and ‘goes up’ to talk to Mark. They fall out and in a fit of pique (whatever that might be), Marianne draws some monstrous one-eyed rocks which start getting ever closer to the house with the intention of killing the two children.
It is up to Marianne to find a way for the two of them to escape their nightmarish dreamscape, but missing magic pencils, the permanence of her crudely drawn pictures and the constant bickering of the two children threaten their redemption.
And that’s it, really, but it’s the very strangeness, otherworldliness and that nightmarish quality which has resonated with so many people over the years and which make Escape into Night very much more than the sum of its often very meagre parts.
The acting in Escape Into Night is very mannered. This a middle-class world where the epithets are rooted in the 1950s. Mark is both “beastly” and a “beast” according to Marianne (played with some competence – but very much from the Famous Five school of acting by Vikki Chambers), and both Marianne and Mark (the slightly more talented, but ferociously bowl-headed Steven Jones) act out the boys are horrid/girls are petulant clichés to the point of viewer torture. The only other characters are Marianne’s mum (the talented Sonia Graham) and Edmund Pegge as Doctor Burton (who is as animated as a Michael Owen football commentary and who fluffs his lines on a number of occasions).
Like all great/memorable ITV children’s dramas of that time (Soldier and Me, The Owl Service, The Kids from 47a) missing parents are often the progenitors of their children’s introspection. Marianne’s dad is “in Tunisia, I think”, but at least he’s not the predatory blind weirdo of the unpleasant (but not uninteresting) 1988 film remake, Paperhouse.
But it’s the house and the cemeterial garden which provide the most disturbing and memorable images from Escape into Night. Most of the sets are rudimentary to say the least, but it’s the grim, often Caligari-inspired emptiness and jarring edges of Mark’s sombre monochrome room which gave me (and two million other children) nightmares. Marianne claims that she has created Mark and that he can only exist when she visits; and if she hasn’t, Mark’s grim existential nightmare of sitting pyjama-clad on the wooden floor of an unfurnished, window-barred room, crippled by an unspecified disease and awaiting a lonely death by monocular pillars of rock really must be the grimmest fate ever created for a character in a children’s – or indeed, any – drama.
The plinth-like rocks communicate to the children in what sounds like a combination of Dalek-speak and the electronic messages sent from the future in the brilliant dream visions of John Carpenter’s The Prince of Darkness. The one hooded eye that each rock possesses occasions imagery from Hammer’s The Lost Continent, Carpenter’s The Thing and Captain Koenig’s ‘brain-sick’ visions in Space 1999 episode ‘The Bringers of Wonder’ and were very, very scary back in 1972. When Marianne switches on the Bakelite radio she has drawn to entertain Mark, all that can be heard is the electronic static and the threats of the creatures.
Again, far too scary for me as a boy.
What these rocks (variously dubbed The Watchers, Them and They) represent is a psychologist’s dream or nightmare and essentially the starting point for the more obviously Freudian themes explored in Paperhouse, but they work brilliantly as an unexplained psychological and tangible threat in the TV version.
Everything is scary in Escape into Night. Not only are the ad break captions scary, but the opening titles are scored with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ dread-inducing Symphony No.6 in E minor, and each episode is concluded with some of Marianne’s crude and creepy drawings accompanied by a tuneless humming which would not be out of place in (say) an asylum-based Amicus portmanteau film.
Escape into Night has many faults and my fevered memories of it from all those years ago probably gave it an unwarranted legendary status in my own mind, but as a reminder of a time when children’s TV drama was quixotic and serious and scary, it’s well worth 110 minutes of your time.
And if you’re wondering, Marianne Dreams was not a big hit with the boys in my class (the girls seemed to like it), and as for my head of department, he started ordering his records via mail order from Small Wonder after Big Black-gate.
Six weeks before he retired.
❉ “Escape Into Night” was a six part British television serial for children made by ATV for ITV that aired from April 19, 1972 until May 24, 1972. It was directed by Richard Bramall.