Why I love... The Woman in Black

Curator Lisa Kerrigan remembers a terrifying first encounter with the Woman in Black, during a Christmas Day broadcast of the 1989 TV version of Susan Hill’s famous ghost story.

9 December 2013

By Lisa Kerrigan

The Woman in Black (1989)

In Susan Hill’s original story, there is only one way to get to the haunted Eel Marsh House – across the marshes, making sure to beware of the perilous tides that have claimed more than one victim. Through adaptations of the novel there are now several eerie routes to that desolate place where the Woman in Black resides, including the long-running stage play and the recent film. My favourite dark path to Eel Marsh House is the 1989 television version of the now famous tale.

Originally appearing rather innocuously on ITV on Christmas Eve, the TV adaptation makes for a spine-tingling viewing experience. It begins with the young and eager Arthur Kidd’s (Adrian Rawlins) journey north from London to attend to the estate of the recently deceased Mrs Drablow. What he finds in the small town of Crythin Gifford are all the ingredients of a classic ghost story: an old dark house, highly suspicious locals and a shocking family secret.

I’m sorry to say that I did not catch it at the time of its original broadcast, but then as a small child I would probably have been scarred and scared for life by such an early viewing. Perhaps it was for the best that I escaped the clutches of the Woman in Black on that occasion. When I saw it on its Christmas Day repeat on Channel 4 in 1994, it stayed with me, and it’s every bit as scary almost 20 years later.

Ghost stories for Christmas are a British TV tradition and they’re most closely associated with the BBC, but this offering from Central for ITV ranks with the very best M.R. James adaptations. Although the novel has a framing device that’s set at Christmas, both screen adaptations abandon any festive reference. They also dispense with an older Arthur recounting his experiences, making the fear at the heart of the story more immediate and threatening.

The Woman in Black (1989)

In adapting the novel for television, the great Nigel Kneale made a technological addition to Eel Marsh House which was typical of his work. Here, the late Mrs Drablow not only had electricity but she made use of a phonograph so that in Kneale’s version the dead don’t just appear, they can tell tales.

This version of The Woman in Black is rarely seen and has been described by no less a fan of horror than Reece Shearsmith as “the most terrifying programme I’ve ever seen”. Without giving away any spoilers, there are some shocking moments in this TV adaptation which will linger in the memory of anyone who sees it.

Veteran director Herbert Wise manages the manifestations of the Woman in Black perfectly and they are all the more startling for their rarity. Nancy Banks-Smith remarked that “the spectre arrives suddenly like a migraine and causes a genuine physical reaction as if one layer of your skin had shifted over another”. This is the thrill of the Woman in Black, it’s not content to merely scare you, it wants to terrify you – to make you afraid to turn around and see what might be behind you. It’s a creeping fear that’s not easily laughed off afterwards.

Roger Clarke recently wrote in the BFI Compendium Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film that the notion of a ghostly woman in black runs deep in British culture and, though it’s been with us for centuries, there is still something pleasurable about a tale in which grown men are paralysed with fear at the thought of a malevolent female phantom. As the Woman in Black herself, Pauline Moran is an electrifying presence with a stare that is Medusa-like in its intensity.

The Woman in Black (2012)

By coincidence, Adrian Rawlins, who turns in a terrific performance in The Woman in Black, went on to play James Potter, father of Harry, in the Harry Potter films and Daniel Radcliffe appeared as young Arthur Kipps in the 2012 film version. Arthur is already a haunted and broken man in the film, and writer Jane Goldman uses his experience as a neat mirror to that of the character of the Woman in Black.

In its transfer to the big screen the story acquires more jumps and a higher body count but both versions generate their own misty supernatural atmosphere. Film director James Watkins somehow makes his Eel Marsh House as beautiful and alluring as it is menacing. Both adaptations also make good use of that universally sinister setting, a neglected Victorian nursery, complete with creepy toys.

Like the best classic ghost stories and Victorian sensation novels, The Woman in Black revolves around a past that won’t stay buried and people that won’t, or can’t, forget. These tales seem to hold even more fascination as the year closes, providing chills which enhance the festivities. We’re more likely to curl up by the glow of the television than the fireside these days, and there is no finer treat than a ghost story for a winter’s evening.

As for the Woman in Black, unlike everybody else in Crythin Gifford, I can’t wait to see her again. However you call in with her, I would urge you to pay a visit – she will haunt you.

The Woman in Black (1989) is available in BFI Mediatheques.

Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film, a major four-month film season, ran at BFI Southbank and across the UK from October 2013 to January 2014.

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