Nigel Kneale’s The Woman in Black

It is ever the position of the subordinate to be given the tasks which the senior partners do not wish to undertake; so it is that Arthur Kidd is despatched to the seaside market town of Crythin Gifford to arrange the disposal of the Drablow Estate following the death of the elderly and reclusive widow Mrs Alice Drablow.

Attending her funeral, the coffin arriving by carriage pulled by two black horses, the mourners are few, yet at the back of the church Kidd sees a lone woman dressed in black who remains distant. Crossing the Nine Lives Causeway at low tide he visits Eel Marsh House, where again he sees the woman in black in the Drablow family graveyard.

Disturbed but undeterred, he begins to sort through Mrs Drablow’s papers and belongings in order to put Eel Marsh House on the market, but the locals scoff and tell him that nobody will buy the property, and despite his determination Kidd himself finds he is haunted by noises he cannot explain, the sound of horses and screams which he believes are somehow linked with the woman in black.

Written by Susan Hill and published in 1983, the setting of The Woman in Black was inspired by a writing retreat she had undertaken a decade before on the Suffolk coast but the literary style drew from a deeper well, Wilkie Collins’ 1859 novel The Woman in White to which Hill’s title served as a counterpoint and in particular the numerous ghost stories of M R James.

Adapted for the stage in 1987, it was on Christmas Eve 1989 that the televised version was first broadcast, written by Nigel Kneale whose work included the four Quatermass serials but who had also translated Nineteen Eighty-Four for the screen, and directed by Herbert Wise whose credits included the BBC’s interpretation of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius.

The Woman in Black sharing several cast with that celebrated production, Secret Army’s Bernard Hepton is a reassuring presence as local landowner Sam Toovey and Fiona Walker is his sympathetic wife, while Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter’s John Cater is solicitor Arnold Pepperell, Kidd’s local contact, all of whom are aware of the history of Eel Marsh House.

Isolated and increasingly fearful, in his first lead role as Arthur Kidd is Adrian Rawlins, perhaps now best known for his recurring role as the late James Potter, father of Harry Potter in the long-running film series, and as the apparition of the woman in black, deathly pale and coming ever closer, her motive as muddy as the trampled causeway, is Pauline Moran.

Remastered from the original 16mm film and released on Blu-ray in both the original matted 1.33:1 ratio with the commercial break bumpers intact and as a widescreen 1.78:1 feature presentation, the production values are similar to Granada’s concurrent Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett, making full use of location shooting across various sites populated with crowds of costumed extras to create Crythin Gifford and the surround and the remote Eel Marsh House.

Kneale frequently dealing in the conflict between the rational and the irrational, often framed in a tale of a horrific past impinging on the present as in Quatermass and the Pit and The Stone Tape, the events of The Woman in Black echo the hallmarks of his best work but while Wise’s reserve is undoubtedly preferable to the later overblown Hammer adaptation of the novel it is perhaps too understated, presented as a lavish but stale period costume drama unsure how to manifest the vital elements of horror, the atmosphere as tenuous as the fog, the tragedy telegraphed rather than shocking.

With a commentary by Kim Newman and Mark Gatiss, devotees since first broadcast, it is more an opportunity for them to express their adoration for the film rather than provide information on the production though Andy Nyman who plays a supporting role as a clerk is able to offer recollections and insight, but more useful is the accompanying booklet of comprehensive viewing notes by Andrew Pixley who demonstrates his customary thorough research.

The Woman in Black is available on Blu-ray now from Network



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