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The Exorcism from 'Dead Of Night' - BBC TV 1972

Review by: David Dent

Ah, the early 1970s - 3 day weeks, winters of discontent, footballers still called names like Nobby - a time before AIDS and global warming (well before they were widely known about anyway), when the high street was full of War on Want shops, where it always seemed to be raining, and where everyone painted their living rooms brown and wore lots of pink and crochet (including some of the women).
'The Exorcism' was the first of seven plays comprising the TV series Dead of Night, part of the 1970s golden age of spooky television, when it seemed that the viewing public just couldn't get enough stories of the macabre and the supernatural, whether adaptations of the works of established writers, or new work like this play, written by Don Taylor, who wrote primarily for radio.
Broadcast in 1972, and widely believed (on this site anyway) to be one of the most frightening pieces of TV drama ever shown, 30 odd years have done little to dampen the effect of 'The Exorcism', which still manages to trouble our conscience while losing none of its power to shock or repulse - and that's just the fashions on display.
'The Exorcism' takes place in a formerly run down rural cottage, recently renovated into a swish country des res by Edmund and Rachel, who have invited their friends Dan and Margaret for Christmas. Edmund is a fairly nauseating sort, working in one of 'the selling professions' (PR as opposed to working in a fish shop, I assume), who proves that there's nothing new in those obnoxious yes-I-turned-this-building-site-into-a-house-that's-now-worth-five-times-what-I-paid-for-it types that appear all too frequently on TV these days - in fact if this play were remade now maybe it could be re-titled "Possession, Possession, Possession" (Ba-dum-bish! - Ed.)
Edmund tells Dan that he bought the cottage for 'at least fifty quid, but not much more' (smirk, smirk), and did it up - or rather got other people to do it up for him - filling it with all the latest mod cons: shower; central heating adjustable to each room; stereo radio (well it is 1972). And a clavichord.
Their friends Dan (played by Clive Swift, who appeared in Frenzy, Death Line and A Warning to The Curious as well as playing Hyacinth Bucket's husband in Keeping Up Appearances) and Margaret are similarly ghastly, and all too easily impressed with the 1970s homestyle chic on display. Dan, a writer, wears a particularly hideous safari suit, and has a detached scientific interest in the poor and the working class who, he thinks, make for interesting articles that he can sell to the press.
Neither Margaret (modelling what looks like the result of an argument in a clothing dye factory) nor Rachel seem to have jobs (well it is 1972).
Rachel, a more sympathetic character than her sneery husband, and who seems to have a more spiritual connection with the cottage (she tells us that she felt it calling to her - possession alert!), is persuaded to prise herself out of the fitted kitchen where she's preparing Christmas dinner and play something for her guests on the clavichord. Rachel picks out a haunting theme but can't remember where she learnt it, which deeply troubles her, but prompts Dan, Edmund and Margaret to launch into a bizarre faux intellectual discussion about memory, the power of the mind and auto suggestion, and to play the old close-your-eyes-and-pretend that-this-ice-cube-is-a-cut-throat-razor parlour game (well it is 1972). With the spooky atmosphere building nicely, and with night setting in, Rachel finally brings Christmas dinner to the table, just in time for a complete power cut to plunge the cottage into darkness. From here on in things get creepier.
Still in a reasonably jolly mood they sit down to dinner by candlelight, but when Edmund takes a sip of red wine he spits it out - it tastes of blood. The others nervously sample the same plonk but concur that it's actually burgundy - but not to Edmund. It gets worse - as they tuck in to the turkey they are consumed with pain as if they have been poisoned - it feels like the pain of deep, gnawing hunger (see where this is going?). Rachel, probably fearing that they will blame the cook, escapes upstairs. In her bedroom she sees, on the bed, the apparition of a dead, mummified child. No longer able to eat the food, their sense of isolation increases when Margaret notices that outside the cottage is complete darkness. No lights from other houses, no reflected candlelight, nothing. Finding all the doors locked Edmund attempts unsuccessfully to break a window. With Dan still attempting to rationalise the situation as some kind of mass hallucination, Edmund checks some photos taken of the cottage 'before' and 'after' the renovations - they now show the cottage derelict in both sets of photos, but also in one they can make out a woman in a shawl in the top floor window. As plaster begins to flake off the walls and the cottage starts to crumble, shedding itself of its modern makeover and reverting to its former dilapidated state, Rachel feels the arrival of a presence in the room, taking her over. "It's here, it's coming nearer, I can feel it!" she cries. And then things get really scary…

The Exorcism's writer, Don Taylor, has received his fair share of criticism for the worthiness of the play's theme: that the modern world has become greedy and materialistic and in so doing has increased the gap between rich and poor, and in making his point with an extremely big stick. In The Exorcism the poor clearly get their own back on the materially obsessed foursome, and without spoiling the ending for you, let's just say it's no Christmas Carol, and Edmund isn't going to be bothered with the hassle of buying and selling again. But despite the moralising, which is laid on rather thick towards the play's close, it retains the ability to chill all these years later. The actors play it straight (remember when actors used to do that in the days before irony?) and the confined set works well to preserve the claustrophobic atmosphere. Credit for the overall spookiness of the play is also due to Herbert Chappell's haunting-though-minimal clavichord score which, used sparingly, punctuates well the growing unease of the four people trapped in the possessed cottage (remember when TV used music sparingly?).
The Exorcism is thoroughly recommended both as a neat 1970s time capsule of style and social conscience, and as a stonkingly good hour of TV drama. However, watching this in 2005, what I found chilling is that, rather than the characters seeming to be hard hearted and on the whole rather obnoxious (which is clearly how Taylor wanted us to see them), they actually appear quite normal in these post Thatcher capitalist times. Let's just hope safari suits don't catch on again.

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