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Woman in Black, The (1989)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Woman in Black, The (1989)
ITV tx 24/12/1989, 103 mins, colour
DirectorHerbert Wise
Production CompanyCentral Independent Television
ProducerChris Burt
ScreenplayNigel Kneale
Original novelSusan Hill
PhotographyMichael Davis
MusicRachel Portman

Cast: Adrian Rawlins (Arthur Kidd); Bernard Hepton (Sam Toovey); David Daker (Josiah Freston); Pauline Moran (woman in black); David Ryall (Sweetman); Clare Holman (Stella Kidd)

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A young solicitor, sent to a remote town to settle the affairs of a deceased client, has several terrifying experiences at the hands of a malignant ghost.

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Nigel Kneale has demonstrated his predilection for ghost stories in such distinctive television dramas as The Road (BBC, tx. 29/9/1963), Quatermass and the Pit (BBC, 1958-59), and The Stone Tape (BBC, tx. 25/12/1972), using science fiction trappings to update and transmogrify the form. The Woman in Black (ITV, tx. 24/12/1989) is a much more traditional effort however, based on Susan Hill's eponymous novel (a title deliberately evoking Wilkie Collins' celebrated Victorian mystery 'The Woman in White').

Kneale's script removes the novel's framing device and transposes its generalised Victorian setting specifically to 1925, while also altering many of the incidental details. His fascination with science and technology is still much in evidence, with references to the cinema, the fact that Eel Marsh House has been electrified (still a comparative novelty in rural areas then) and Mrs Drablow's use of a sound recording machine. However, many of the other elements of the story, with its naïve protagonist sent to a remote town populated with hostile locals, and the emphasis on churches, graveyards and ancient ruins, are very familiar to the genre.

Pauline Moran, best known as Miss Lemon in Agatha Christie's Poirot (ITV, 1989- ), proves utterly mesmerising as the grimacing and malevolent ghost, especially in the scene in which she swoops down on the bed-ridden hero, the horror only curtailed through the intervention of a commercial break.

Although the villagers of the evocatively named 'Crythin Gifford' believe that the title character is an evil spirit who murders children in revenge for the tragic loss of her son, the film's focus on the hard life of people in the country and the city turns her into more of a harbinger, a symbol of the cruel fate and economic hardship suffered by many as a result of the war, with the Depression only a few years away.

Hill was reportedly unhappy with some of Kneale's changes to her novel, preferring the hugely successful stage version, which has been playing to packed houses in the West End since 1989, with no end currently in sight. The ITV adaptation, however, has been repeated only once since its initial transmission, which is a shame as it's one of the few feature-length ghost stories made for television that is able to sustain its length, thanks also to several fine character studies, an intriguing narrative, some extremely well-executed shocks and a memorably nihilistic finale.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Arrival (4:19)
2. The mysterious mourner (1:42)
3. Eelmarsh House (2:05)
4. Believing in ghosts (1:54)
5. The playroom (2:00)
Kneale, Nigel (1922-2006)
Mackintosh, Steven (1967-)
Ghost Stories