‘The Woman in Black’ review

16 10 2010

Looking Back at the Woman in Black

[written by author and Ghost Appreciation Month team member, P. G. Bell]

When I was ten years old, my mother took me to Cardiff’s New Theatre to watch the touring production of The Woman in Black. I think I’d pestered her – our high school English teacher, always keen to encourage participation in the arts, had been rhapsodising about how scary it was. A life-long fan of ghost stories, I hardly needed the encouragement, although I suspect now I only half believed her. After all, the theatre was a place for musicals and amateur productions of Shakespeare. A play couldn’t really be scary, could it?

Clearly, I knew nothing. Like the story’s hero, the unassuming Arthur Kipps, I quickly found myself ensnared in the dark and shuttered halls of Eel Marsh House, fighting to solve its morbid puzzles while my body tensed at every silence, flinched at every sound. For ninety minutes I lived in absolute dread of the ghastly, malignant presence of the woman in black.

The experience marked me for life. Even now, twenty years later, the interpretation of the word “ghost” is the rustling of crinoline and the creaking of floorboards.

The play is now in its twenty first year and its success has eclipsed its source material to such an extent that the novel’s author, Susan Hill, reminds visitors to her website that “The Woman in Black began as a book, my first ghost story, and will always be a book, as well as everything else.”

I was surprised to learn, as many people are, that the story is less than thirty years old and not a product of the Victorian age at all. This is due to Hill’s meticulous distillation of essential ghost story ingredients, including location (“A haunted place. A lonely house or church.”), atmosphere, weather (“fog or mist, disk, twilight, drizzle…”) and, most importantly, the ghost itself (“There has to be a motive for the hauntings. It is not very interesting if a dark-robed monk walks through walls or a veiled lady drifts up and down a staircase frightening people but doing nothing much else and without any reason or purpose.”)

In less skilled hands, such tropes would no doubt become plodding and predictable, but Hill uses them to weave a story that stands shoulder to shoulder with the output of M.R. James or Dickens. Indeed, the assistant she employed to type up her handwritten first draft soon refused to work alone, such was the effect of the story on her.

Given the success of the play, it’s surprising that the story’s only screen adaptation to date is so little known. Produced for ITV in 1989, with a script by Nigel Kneale (of Quatermass fame and the equally chilling The Stone Tapes), it met with a good critical reception but was only repeated once, in 1994 (when I happened to stumble across it) before being tied up in a series of copyright issues that not only led to its deletion from VHS and DVD, but ensured it would never receive another network airing. (So yes, if you are watching it as part of Ghost Appreciation Month, you are technically breaking the law!)

It’s an adaptation that deserves to be seen. Although it lacks the raw chill and immediacy of the stage version, director Herbert Wise delivers one of the creepiest dramas to grace British screens in the last few decades. The titular Woman in Black is particularly well handled. The vague and nebulous figure of the play is given solid, terrifying life by Pauline Moran, whose piercing gaze radiates malice through the screen. Other changes seem a little superfluous – names and locations are altered to no real purpose and the ending takes the story a step further than is perhaps necessary, but the spirit of Hill’s tale remains intact.

Of course there’s no escaping the news that the newly resurrected Hammer Films is currently producing a big budget adaptation for the silver screen. Directed by James Watkins (Eden Lake), with a screenplay by Jane Goldman (Stardust and Kick Ass), and starring Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, it’s already building up a head of marketing steam and will probably be inescapable upon its release in 2011. While such a roster of talent is reassuring, I still can’t fathom the decision to film the story in 3D – it smacks of someone chasing a bandwagon that may in fact be a hearse.

Will I watch it? Of course I will. Like poor, doomed Arthur Kipps, I’m feted to encounter this ghost again and again. She still scares me witless at each meeting but I can’t help loving her just a little for it.




3 responses

16 10 2010

I saw an adaptation of this at the Alhambra theatre in Bradford that was wonderful. I kept having to tell myself ‘they are only actors’.

Ghost appreciation month is rapidly showing me what a complete wuss I am. Oh, the shame.

16 10 2010
Paul D. Brazill

Good post. I’ve never read the book or seen any adapatations so I reckon I’m in for a treat.

17 10 2010
P. G. Bell

Hi RJ, and thanks for the post. I’m with you here – ghost stories have always scared me more than any other form of horror. That’s what I love about them, but it does make for a few sleepless nights!

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