ESCAPE INTO NIGHT - The Complete Series

"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 Storr
The 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 of the best! 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 house
Despite 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 for the ATV location shooting background details.

- The Complete Series (Network DVD 7953015 - Region 2 - Released 18th May 2009 - Cert 12)

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5 Responses to “ESCAPE INTO NIGHT - The Complete Series”
  1. Great review, Frank. I've just finished watching this myself and am currently working on my own review for my blog. Hugely enjoyable series (much better than the later 'Sky' which I've also been watching and will be reviewing over the weekend) and I agree about the 'memory cheats' bit. I was sure I could recall a sequence where the stones are crowding around Marianne's bedroom window in the 'real' world - it's the only vivid memory I have of watching the serial at the time. Of course, there's so such scene! Just shows how our minds can contort and distort half-remembered things from our past. All in all though, a thorughly engaging and enjoyable serial. Not only do they not make them like this any more, I suspect they couldn't if they tried.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hello,I have been racking my brains for years to solve the conundrum of what this scary childrens programme was called.The last episode was airing on the day we moved house in 1972 but my dad wouldnt let us watch it on the telly at our old house and made us walk to our new one.The anquish that ensued was traumatic as I loved the show .So a big grateful thank you .

  3. Valerie Jane Smith says:

    Hi! a great reviw, I am also 47 and so was the same age as you when I watched this amazing series on TV, with my brother and sister, we were so terrified but loved it at the same time.The stone creatures were so sinister, I have never forgotten it and I am also about to watch it now that I'm a 'grown-up'. It will be intersting to see what my kids make of it too, I wonder if they will find it more frightening because it will be so unlike the slick productions they are used to, or if they will just laugh!
    Valerie Jane Smith (nee Butler)

  4. Nigel Brockbank (nee Verma) says:

    At last, I have been tormented by my memories of this series, the name of which was consigned to the labyrinth I call my mind. I have always clung on to the "stones" which I distinctly recall having a green glowing eye. Apparently this was in colour but that version has been lost to history and only B&W remains. I would have been 8 years old when I watched this, maybe a little too scary for such a young mind, maybe that's why it has always, as I am sure for which it was designed, haunted me.

  5. Unknown says:

    Good review. Like others I have always remembered the scary stones!

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