❉ One of the truly great television ghost stories.
The story goes – present and correct on the commentary feature here – that when he was adapting Susan Hill’s novella The Woman in Black as an ITV drama in 1989, Nigel Kneale completed the script in just ten days, only to be advised by his agent to hold off on submitting it in case no-one believed a thorough job could be done so swiftly. In fact, it was a brilliant piece of work, and that anecdote highlights a key factor in the adaptation’s success: Kneale was simply perfect for the job. It became his last masterpiece.
Much sought-after and long unavailable due to a baffling tangle of rights issues (not to mention some indifference on Hill’s part), the ITV Woman in Black has now been remastered and released on Blu-ray by Network. Freed from the purgatory of traded nth-generation VHS copies – DVD was still a way off when this baby was broadcast – it looks pin-sharp, finally revealing the level of effort and detail that went into it. The success isn’t Kneale’s alone, of course: it’s also a late-period masterpiece by Herbert Wise, who knew a thing or two about a creeping sense of threat in lavish surroundings, as the erstwhile director of I, Claudius. Wise also assembled a killer cast, including three I, Claudius alumni – Bernard Hepton, John Cater and Fiona Walker, the latter of whom he favoured so much that he’d married her.
Where this version of Hill’s book succeeds and certain others fall down – hello, Hammer Films! – is that it’s so very beautifully judged in terms of subtlety. There are just enough moments of terror to make it work, not least one that… well, if you know, you know. There’s a fine, unhurried pace to it which demands and richly rewards the viewer’s attention. There’s also a crucial emphasis on sound to sell key moments of the story, which is as often about near-silence as cacophony, and Rachel Portman’s distinctive, compact score is canny enough to know when to hold back completely.
So much of the effect is in loaded hints within the dialogue and it’s in matters such as this that Kneale excels. He’d been scripting stand-out TV adaptations since the days of Wuthering Heights and Nineteen Eighty-Four in the Fifties. He was an admirer of the eerie, minimalist ghost stories of M.R. James, and brought that knowledge to the project too. Ticking away throughout his career, Kneale, who grew up on the superstitiously-inclined Isle of Man, had explored an objective fascination with the supernatural – he was no believer – and of how such things might be explained, even resolved. It’s most obviously present in The Stone Tape, when technology is turned on a haunting, and there are echoes of it here, with new-fangled electrified houses and recording technology. Not all of this was in Hill’s novella, but Kneale played fast and loose with the source, turning The Woman in Black into his kind of ghost story. In his hands, the Crythin Gifford causeway becomes a stone tape.
The whole piece hardly puts a foot wrong, beyond perhaps a close-up too far or the very occasional clunky moment. But there’s so much to admire here and this new HD transfer shows it off at its best. There’s a real sense of a location and a community, complete with bustling extras, and thanks to Wise it all looks splendid, with fluid camerawork and handsomely framed imagery. There’s a gloriously wood-panelled colour palate to it and at times a very effective sense of emptiness. Adrian Rawlins does sterling work portraying Arthur Kidd as he’s lead from safety to danger and back (…or not), often carrying entire sequences alone, or at best accompanied by a cute little dog. In particularly, though, Hepton really impresses as Sam Toovey, lending the piece much weight and heft with just the right blend of staunchness and distant, muted fear.
The extras on this release are on the skimpy side, with nothing beyond a photo gallery, an audio commentary and 16:9 widescreen version of the feature itself. (There’s also a viewing notes booklet by archive expert Andrew Pixley, but it wasn’t available with the review disc.) The commentary provides a good ‘them were the days’ appreciation of the piece, courtesy of big-name admirers Kim Newman and Mark Gatiss, alongside Andy Nyman, who appeared in the drama as solicitor’s clerk Jackie at the very start of his career. In truth, Jackie’s a pretty tiny role, so the commentary as a whole doesn’t offer too much in terms of behind-the-scenes insight, but it’s certainly hearty and good-natured (and does reveal who provided the scream in that scene.)
Yes, it’s typical that she’d turn up at a time like this, but it’s an overdue delight that this near-legendary version of The Woman in Black can be seen freely and properly and can now take its rightful place in the pantheon of truly great television ghost stories.
❉ Feature version in full widescreen
❉ Limited edition, specially designed o-card packaging
❉ Audio commentary with horror experts Mark Gatiss, Kim Newman and star Andy Nyman
❉ Image gallery
❉ Booklet by Andrew Pixley
❉ The worldwide Blu-ray debut of The Woman in Black is available exclusively from Networkonair.com from 10 August #TheWomanInBlack