The Intruder (1972) Blu-ray reviewed

❉ Reacquaintance with The Intruder 50 years later, courtesy of this fine Blu-ray release, reveals a remarkable series; writes Rob Fairclough.

The Intruder is a distinct memory from my childhood, mainly for Milton Johns’ truly creepy performance as ‘Sonny Smith’, the titular title character. All black beret, eye-patch and raincoat, driving a dilapidated car from the 1950s or earlier, he was the kind of villain you didn’t normally see in a programme aimed at a family audience. Reacquaintance with The Intruder umpteen years later, courtesy of this fine Blu-ray release by Network, reveals a really quite remarkable series.

The Intruder was made by Granada in 1972 from the 1969 children’s novel by John Rowe Townsend, adapted by Mervyn Haisman and producer/director Alan Plummer. In 1969, Plummer had made another Granada series based on a Carnegie Medal-winning children’s novel, The Owl Service. Both step well outside the realms of what might popularly be regarded as children’s fiction, focusing unapologetically an adult themes such as obsession, mental illness and burgeoning sexuality.

The Intruder has a quite extraordinary feel. The series was shot entirely on location on 16mm film – unusual for television of the time – in Ravenglass, a small village on the Cumbrian coast. As actor Simon Fisher-Turner, who played Peter Ellison but may be better known to We Are Cult readers for his soundtrack work for Derek Jarman and his Baroque Psych Pop alter-ego King of Luxembourg, recalls in the engaging and amusing special feature Return to Ravenglass, the village was “just a street on the coast… with one public phone box.” In a surreal touch, the buildings on the coast-facing end of the street stop just before a desolate landscape of mud banks and sand dunes.

It’s a feature that Plummer makes effective use of to emphasise the isolation of the fictional village of Skirlston. His cinematic treatment of the lonely community reminded me very much of how the village on Summerisle was photographed in The Wicker Man (1973). Maybe the film’s director Robin Hardy saw The Intruder? It was certainly possible at a time when there were only three TV channels in the UK.

The simple but trippy title sequence has two faces – those of Milton Johns and James Bate, playing the twenty-something lead Arnold Haithwaite – flickering and fighting for prominence on the screen. It’s a neat visual summary of the central dilemma that Arnold, a Sand Pilot – a tour guide across Skirlston’s beaches – finds himself in: Milton Johns’ Sonny simply arrives one day and declares himself to be the real Arnold Haithwaite, the son of the brother of Arnold’s adoptive father Ernest (veteran actor Jack Woolgar on fine passive/aggressive form). Sonny’s intrusion immediately calls into question Arnold’s identity, but the theme of “It matters who people are” marbles all the other characters in his orbit.

It might be a bit simplistic to say that The Intruder is Harold Pinter for a family audience, but Sonny supplanting Arnold’s place in his home by moving in and looking after Ernest, which Arnold had previously done, certainly recalls Joseph Losey’s 1963 film The Servant, which Pinter wrote the screenplay for. All the characters, from Arnold, Ernest and Sonny on down, have a curiously Pinter-esque lack of back story: the sexually precocious Jane (Sheila Ruskin), her jealous rival for Arnold’s affections, Norma (Maggie Don), Sonny’s trendy, dominated fianceé Miss Binns (Jean Alexandrov) and Jane’s snobbish mother Helen (Elizabeth) all exist in the moment, defined by their chief characteristics.

The more you analyse The Intruder, the more the Pinter-isms emerge: details like cans of mushroom soup, a teapot, a magazine and a children’s spade become weapons in a domestic battleground between Arnold and Sonny. Most strikingly, there is a pervading air of simmering sexual tension. Young women constantly circle and tempt Arnold – Jane, Norma and even the visitors to Skirlston Arnold guides across the dunes in one episode. In the character of the upper class Jane, the attraction between her and Arnold is also bound up with social standing – “Court someone in your own class”, Ernest tells him, and his warning is borne out as Jane, unhappy in herself, continually plays games with the working class Arnold’s affections. It’s hard not to see the climax of the series, when Arnold and Jane are trapped in a flooded Sand Church by a raging storm, reflecting the height of the emotional storm between these two dysfunctional characters.

Arnold, ably portrayed by James Bate, is no blue-eyed hero of children’s television: he’s moody, aggressive, unsympathetic and rude. One scene in particular makes you wonder how The Intruder ever managed to be shown on Sunday afternoons in 1972: Sonny asks Jane to pose as the potential poster girl for his planned marina, clearly leching over her as he lasciviously chews his fingers. When she tells him she did it as a “sort of joke”, he loses his temper and tries to thrash her with a cane. As well as that, there’s Jane’s demand to Arnold to give her “a clout” to teach her a lesson. The early 1970s were clearly another country.

Complementing all this emotional turbulence is Plummer’s highly stylized directorial style. Before the end of episode one, there’s a dream sequence which has the sea washing around the Haithwaite household’s living room furniture and Sonny shutting himself inside their grandfather clock. Elsewhere, there’s slow motion drownings, and fast, almost avant garde cutting between images. Whenever Sonny enters the frame and becomes menacing, he’s shot from below and the rooms he occupies are filmed at an extreme, tilted, German Expressionist angle. Another taboo-breaker for modern family viewing are the scenes which reveal the nature of Arnold’s parentage and when Sonny warns Peter not to tell Arnold what he’s discovered about him. While doing so, he chisels away at wooden bannister with a cut-throat razor in close-up: “Couldn’t answer for what might happen…” Truly remarkable.

If anyone’s the traditional children’s hero in The Intruder it’s Peter. Blonde haired, blue-eyed, fourteen and resembling the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, of all the characters he’s the only one who works out what’s going on and recognises what his sister Jane’s up to. Unfortunately, this aspect of his character results in a sequence tonally at odds with the rest of the series. Playing the detective in pursuit of Sonny to and through Manchester, he puts on a suit, hat and glasses and, in an attempt to hide his face, carries a newspaper thrust out in front of him, for all the world acting like someone out of Here Come the Double Deckers (1970-71). It’s such a directorial slip that you’re left wondering if Alan Plummer actually filmed it.

The narrative moves in unexpected ways, with the final episode focusing on Arnold and Jane rather than revelations about Sonny. Maybe that’s why I found the concluding instalment slightly disappointing. Having said that, the series remains enigmatic until the end. Producing Sonny’s wallet, the Skirlston policeman says to Arnold: “God knows who you are, lad, but [he’s] Arnold Haithwaite.” Mentally ill, a fantasist, manipulatively self-pitying, violent… I’d say Sonny Smith is Milton Johns’ defining role, and that’s saying something, because in his time he played some memorable villains.

Caveats about the last episode aside, the series is so good, and so surprising, that I immediately wanted to watch it again, particularly when the seven episodes on this Blu-ray are complemented by the aforementioned interview with Simon Fisher-Turner, an edition of the series Writer’s Gallery featuring John Rowe Townsend, and seven exhaustively detailed commentaries courtesy of Tim Worthington. Hats off to Network for including in the image gallery the cover feature about the series from Look-In, “the junior TV Times”. That’s impressively thorough.

The Intruder is an essential purchase, from a time when what constituted family entertainment wasn’t set in stone and could be both daring and original.

Special Features

❉ A brand-new high definition remaster from original film elements in its original fullscreen aspect ratio.
Archive interview with John Rowe Townsend
Brand-new interview with Simon Fisher Turner
Commentaries on four episodes by Tim Worthington
Image Gallery
 Extensive booklet by TV historian Andrew Pixley


❉ ‘The Intruder’ is on Blu-ray exclusively from Network Distributing from 17 October: https://new.networkonair.com/the-intruder/

 Robert Fairclough is a writer, designer, photographer and sometime actor. He writes on a variety of subjects, including mental health and popular culture (sometimes both at once). Robert has written six books, contributes to magazines and websites and is a creative consultant for The Restoration Trust, an organisation that delivers ‘culture therapy’ for people with mental health issues. He can be contacted on robmay1964@outlook.com and his website can be viewed at www.robfairclough.co.uk

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