"We should show them (children) that evil is something they already know about or half know. It's not something right outside themselves and this immediately puts it, not only into their comprehension, but it also gives them a degree of power" - Catherine StorrThe late John Nathan-Turner, producer of Doctor Who for nearly a decade, used to upbraid fans with a little saying: "the memory cheats", when responding to the brickbats hurled at him that Doctor Who under his leadership was not as good as it had been in the past. He suggested that viewers of the series often had a rose-tinted recollection of older episodes, believing them to be better than they actually were. Indeed, older Doctor Who fans were rather rudely disturbed from their staunch opinions about classic episodes of the series when in 1992 all four episodes of Tomb Of The Cybermen were returned to the BBC and subsequently released on video. What had been enthusiastically built up into...like...one of the best stories...like...evah! actually turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.
Would I be in for a disappointment?And so we turn to Escape Into Night. I have as vivid a memory of this as I have of Yeti's in the Underground, Cybermen in sewers, Victoria screaming at parasitic weed creatures. Disturbing images of a dark, empty house on a hill and a boy trapped inside by nightmarish stone creatures with one eye. At the tender age of ten this put the screaming ab-dabs up me. So, with some trepidation, and bearing in mind Nathan-Turner's mantra "the memory cheats", I turned to Network's DVD release of the series. Would I be in for a disappointment? The serial had a good pedigree. Adapted from the book Marianne Dreams written by Catherine Storr in 1958, the story concerns a young girl, bedridden by an illness (a riding accident in the television version), who occupies her time by drawing in her scrapbook with an old pencil. Strangely, whatever she draws she subsequently dreams about and it seems to become real. The house, the unhappy young boy, the stairs, a bed and food all materialise in her nightmares. Uncannily, the boy, Mark, also exists in the real world, and his illness is related to Marianne by her home tutor, Miss Chesterfield. A rather antagonistic relationship develops between the two children as they meet in her dreams and in a blaze of anger she draws bars at the window of the house and huge one eyed boulders as a barrier around the house to prevent him from escaping.
...she's also exorcising her fears, frustrations and boredom
Storr's book is regarded as a children's classic, dealing with often dark and problematic themes: mortality, illness, fear. But it also explores the connection between dreams and reality, the consequences of your ill-informed actions and how they will affect others. The dilemma for Marianne is to find a way of helping the dream version of Mark to recover enough from his illness (for the real world Mark it's eventually stated as polio) and help him escape from the house and the encroaching row of stone cyclops. In doing so, she's also exorcising her fears, frustrations and boredom, perhaps linked to her own, and the real Mark's difficult passage, not just through a serious illness such as polio, but also through the choppy waters of adolescence.
Enter producer and script editor Ruth Boswell (Timeslip, The Tomorrow People and The Feathered Serpent amongst others) who took the idea of commissioning a serial based on the book to Head Of Children's TV at ATV, Alan Coleman. The serial, with newcomers Vikki Chambers and Steven Jones as Marianne and Mark respectively, originally made in colour in 1972, now only exists as black and white telecine recordings and it is these that have made their way onto DVD. It was also one of the first outside broadcasts for drama put together by ATV, with the house set built on location at Aldridge in Walsall by set designer Don Davidson. It certainly lodged in the minds of impressionable young viewers, myself included, and has inspired other versions of the same story, a film Paperhouse, directed by Bernard Rose in 1988 and an opera by Andrew Lowe-Watson that was premiered in 2004 from a libretto written by Storr herself before she died in 2001.
An undercurrent clearly exists regarding absentee and dysfunctional father figures
So, what does it feel like to watch the serial as an adult in 2009? Obviously, it has that fuzzy nostalgia attached to it that certainly helps you overlook its meagre budget, leisurely pace and theatricality. Vikki Chambers clearly isn't as naturalistic an actor as Steven Jones. I found Jones quietly impressive, with an ability to put a great deal of emotion into the lines, presenting them in a natural, conversational style. Chambers often puts the emphasis in her lines in the wrong places, committing some of the cardinal sins of children acting by coming across as slightly shrill and unnatural. Despite that, this never infantilises the characters (even though Marianne does act childishly it's for the greater dramatic purpose of rescuing Mark) and doesn't talk down to children. The relationship between Marianne and Mark is as complex as that between her mother and the visiting tutor Miss Chesterfield. Mind you, the viewer gets as exasperated with Marianne as much as as her mother does.
There's definitely a tension between the two women that's subtly played out by the excellent Patricia Maynard, as Chesterfield, and Sonia Graham, as Mrs Austen. An undercurrent clearly exists regarding absentee and dysfunctional father figures with Mrs. Austin bringing up Marianne more or less on her own (a theme reinforced in the book by inclusion of the rather frightening and deranged blind father). It's as much about the relationships between parent and child as it is about male and female roles. This theme also plays out in a rather nightmarish sequence in the third and fourth episodes when Marianne has a relapse and has a distorted vision of all the adult figures that surround her, including Dr. Burton, the local GP.
That said, both the young actors and adult performers drive the story forward and keep you interested and the scenes set in Marianne's 'dreams', in the empty house, are heightened by stark sets (suggesting the crudity of Marianne's pencil drawings), moody lighting and sound effects (the muttering and whispering of the stone watchers, the singular ticking of a clock). The surreal, eerie quality of these scenes could quite easily be seen as a precursor to the similarly haunted environments of that other ATV classic, Sapphire And Steel. I would go as far to say that by only being available in black and white the serial avoids the usual distancing effects of studio-bound colour productions of the period. If you compare this to episodes of The Tomorrow People and Doctor Who from the same period it gains more credibility and atmosphere because much of the cheapness, over-lighting and disastrous tonal colour palette of studio based productions is eliminated.
...the one eyed stones gradually advance on the houseDespite the passage of time and the low production values, there is still something compelling about the serial. Richard Bramall's direction uses slow dissolves and abrupt edits to wrong-foot you, leaving you wondering which parts of the story are the dream and which are the reality. The last two episodes really ramp up the tension as the two children bicker and the one eyed stones gradually advance on the house, their weird electronic voices warbling 'We're coming' in the background. Their escape by bicycle is full of connotations from playground games like Grandmother's Footsteps where they have to hide in the intermittent darkness whilst a lighthouse, drawn by Marianne, temporarily blinds the boulders. Terrific stuff.
Does the memory cheat here? Yes, I suppose it does but then that's partly because I'm watching it as a cynical 47 year old, and like a lot of children's television that's buried in the archives and only to see the light of day decades later, I tend to have more exciting, half remembered versions in my head that bear little relation to what you eventually see on DVD. What would a 10 year old make of this serial now, I wonder? The most important thing you can take away from this is that children's drama does seem to be in a parlous state these days when you compare contemporary output to the riches of the mid to late 1970s. It would be great to see a new version adapted for television but I suspect Storr's directness in dealing with evil, fear and illness would be severely toned down and the impact would be lessened.
Thanks to the BBC's h2g2 entry on Escape Into Night for the details about Catherine Storr and www.aldridge-web.com for the ATV location shooting background details.
ESCAPE INTO NIGHT - The Complete Series (Network DVD 7953015 - Region 2 - Released 18th May 2009 - Cert 12)
Cathode Ray Tube Escape Into Night Catherine Storr
- Freelance writer and film and television researcher (for hire).
He has contributed to a number of books and websites about British archive television and cinema as well as recent television series including work for Moviemail, Frame Rated and Arrow Video. Publications include I.B Tauris's 'Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour - A Critical
Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era' (2013) and 'Doctor
Who - The Pandorica Opens' (2010).
- Adventures in Prime Time
- Behind the Sofa
- Blogtor Who
- British Television Drama
- Cardigans & Tweed
- Dez Skinn
- Dirty Modern Scoundrel
- Doctor Who Appreciation Society
- Doctor Who Newspage
- Feeling Listless
- Frame Rated
- Gareth Bundy's Blog
- Green Carnation Prize
- Int. Jason Arnopp's Mind - Day/Night
- Island of Dreams
- Jonathan Melville
- Ka-os Theory
- Lady Don't Fall Backwards
- Life of Wylie
- Life on Magrs
- Narrative Drive
- Paul Mount's World of Stuff
- Pseudo Random Noise
- Radio Free Skaro
- TV Lover
- Tachyon TV
- Tardis Newsroom
- Television Heaven
- The Custard TV
- The Digital Bits
- The Fan Can
- The Medium is Not Enough
- The Railway Arms
- The Thumbcast
- Thierry Attard's Double Feature
- from the north...
Comments5 Responses to “ESCAPE INTO NIGHT - The Complete Series”
The Book(s) What I Wrote
"Whether you’re a fan of the show under Moffat or not, it offers an intriguing, insightful look at all aspects of the series" 7/10 - Starburst, January 2014
"A worthy addition to serious texts on Doctor Who" - Doctor Who Magazine 431, February 2011
"an impressive work, imbued with so much analytical love and passion, and is an absolute must-read for any fan" N. Blake - Amazon 4/5 stars
"...mixes the intellectual and the emotional very well...it's proper media criticism" 9/10 - The Medium Is Not Enough
"... an up-to-date guide that isn’t afraid to shy away from the more controversial aspects of the series" 8/10 - Total SciFi Online
"...well-informed new angles on familiar episodes... this is a great read from start to finish" - Bertie Fox - Amazon 4/5 stars
"Frank Collins has produced a book that is fiercely idiosyncratic, displays a wide-ranging intellect the size of a planet, but which is also endearingly open and inclusive in its desire to share its expansive knowledge..." 4/5 - Horrorview.com
"The book is great! It makes you think, it makes you work. It encourages you to go back and watch the series with a whole new perspective..." - G.R. Bundy's Blog: Telly Stuff And Things