Sunday, September 11, 2011

Play for Today: Vampires – review

Director: John Goldschmidt

First Aired: 1979

Contains spoilers

Does watching a TV programme or film affect the child watching it? Clearly everything we watch and read (whatever our age) impacts our sensibilities but for a fictional piece to actually change our perceptions, perhaps that is going a bit too far? Children are clearly more susceptible to outside influence but not as drastically, one feels, as claimed by the tabloids and gutter-press.

This is one of the questions I felt that this Play for Today was asking, albeit subtly, and in that case the play did have a conclusion of shorts for without the question the play seemed to flounder at the end, failing to reach a satisfactory close. Play for Today, as an entity, was a long running BBC series, airing between 1970 to 1984, and covered most genres. This one (not surprisingly given the title) used vampires as a theme.

Stu reflected
Single mum Mrs Perry (Linda Beckett) is going out for the night with her new boyfriend Jim (Jimmy Coleman), leaving elder son Stu (Peter Moran) in charge of younger brother Davey (Paul Moran). Their friend Dingo (Tommy White) has come round and together they are watching the Hammer classic Dracula, Prince of Darkness on TV. We see them during the resurrection of Dracula scene and we see the boys reflected in the TV screen, imposed over Christopher Lee’s face. One can't help but think there was a knowingness on the director's part that led to him using a reflection in such a way. After the film Dingo goes home and Stu acts like a vampire’s servant to scare Davey. By the time they are in bed their mum returns home with Jim. Stu feigns sleep but can hear them.

buying fangs
The next day Stu is given a pound to pay for his and Davey’s school dinner and to split the change (those were the days!). He goes to a sweet shop for change but has to buy a penny chew in order that he might get it. Stu gives Davey his share and then he and Dingo bunk off school together… that is until Dingo’s Brother (Gerard Riley) catches them and forces Dingo to school. Stu goes to a chip shop run by an ‘uncle’ (one of his mum’s ex-boyfriends) gets some chips and manages to blag some pocket money off him. He goes to a joke shop and buys some vampire teeth.

the chapel
Stu spends the day playing at being a vampire, avoiding his class when they appear in the park for football. By the time Davey, along with Dingo, gets home Stu is applying makeup to make it look like blood is round his mouth. Davey and Dingo tell him that they spotted a vampire (John G Heller) in the cemetery and the boys go to check. The man accused is a tall man dressed in black. Stu suggests that he has the eyes of the undead. Stu, despite being taken to school by Jim, manages to go back in the morning. He follows the vampire into a broken down chapel and down into a crypt. The man checks the name on tombs and then spots Stu who runs away back to his school.

the kids look for a vampire
Cutting to the chase, Stu’s teacher Miss Goodall (Margot Boyd) has a heart attack in assembly and dies. The next day he writes an essay suggesting that it was the influence of the vampire that killed her. Something Dingo agrees with when questioned by the new teacher. Dingo also mentions that Stu has dreamt of his father and that Stu’s father is in the cemetery (he had a fatal car crash).This titbit is not explored any further, we get it second hand and it is a tantalising piece of dialogue that frustrates in its lack of follow-up. That night a gang of kids go to the cemetery, an event that had echoes of the hunt for the Gorbal’s Vampire in 1954. After Stu accuses the man the police come and the kids scarper.

Mrs Perry reveals fangs
When Stu gets home he knocks on the door and, after a few moments pass, Davey lets him in. Jim has left Mrs Perry and the mostly empty bottle of scotch left on the mantelpiece indicates she has been drinking. He goes to see her in her room, there is a smear of red at her mouth, lipstick perhaps, but when she smiles she has fangs, Stu gets a cross to sleep with and… the play ends.

Stu plays the monster
I felt let down by the narrative, I wanted a conclusion around the ‘vampire’, either a proof of vampirism or, more likely, a reveal that he was nothing more than a cemetery official with a sombre look. The transformation of Mrs Perry could be taken two ways… it might be Stu’s over-active imagination or it might indicate that his mother is a fallen woman (in a very unenlightened way) and thus in league with the devil. On one level, it is Stu’s imagination that the play explores. He has watched a horror film, he has emulated the monster and he and his friends have been led to believe in the reality of vampires. This was not helped by the joke shop owner (Bert Edgar) telling him that vampires are real and, tantalisingly, suggesting that the first was female. Nor was it helped by a priest, Father Mulvaney (Phil Kernot), preaching in school that the devil is real (just when the teacher has her heart attack).

sleep with the cross
Just focusing on the priest, who gives a long speech – tied into his recent pilgrimage to Lourdes, we can wonder whether his assertion regarding the war between good and evil and the substantive presence of the devil has a deeper meaning when we consider that much earlier Dingo’s brother’s car had a number plate that contained the digits ‘666’. Either that is reading too much in (in which case the number plate was coincidental) or the idea was embryonic and they failed to explore it as explicitly as they might. This then leaves us with the idea that the combination of the viewed film and various outside influences has influenced developing minds and subsequently translated into all the kids beginning to believe that a vampire is abroad; almost showing peasant superstition appearing in 1970s Liverpool as well as suggesting that 'unsavoury' subjects warp the minds of the impressionable.

the 'vampire'
The play was well acted, and the dialogue was excellently written – there is a lovely discussion of horror versus sci-fi, which referenced the Quatermass Experiment – if frustrating in places, such as the oblique reference to Stu’s dream and when leaving obvious blanks that the viewer wanted filled. The play, as you will be able to tell, does make you think but I felt let down by the lack of certain explicit inputs and more exploration would have led to a higher score. 6 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


RoseOfTransylvania said...

Sounds indeed 6/10 stuff - some interesting ideas, may be not earth-shattering but worth a check.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Rose. Honestly, the score lifted slightly the more I thought about it and it really could have been higher with a more explicit narrative

Brad said...

The ending threw me for a loop as well. Ambiguity is great for discussion, however, sometimes I also appreciate a clear-cut conclusion. ;)

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Brad... spot on, whilst a discussion re the ambiguity of a given film/play is both fun and worthwhile, I think it depends on the piece. In this one, ironing out at least some of the ambiguities would have been nice.

cheers for the comment