Horror of Darkness, 1965 – ★★★½

A visit to the BFI Mediatheque is always well worth it, and this time I had a particular Wednesday Play in mind, ‘Horror of Darkness’.

This play by John Hopkins was filmed in 1964 but held back for a year before its television transmission as one of the ‘Wednesday Plays’, perhaps due to worry from the BBC about its subject matter, which touches on homosexuality at a time when this was still a matter for the criminal courts.

Peter (a dour Alfred Lynch) and Cathy (Glenda Jackson in sparkling form) are a couple, not married, but rubbing along together. He’s an artist, illustrating biology books. She appears to be a homemaker. Into their world comes Robin (Nicol Williamson, playing in his native Scots accent), a fey and unpredictable friend of Peter’s from the past, who brings a sense of unease into the happy home.

Early on, we see Robin’s playful but disruptive side when he ruins Peter’s commissioned drawing, but we don’t know why he is like this. We also don’t know why Peter is so shaken to find Robin in the flat with a woman, listening to stereo instrumentals on the gramophone.

As Robin weaves a web in which he claims to be a successful writer, first of a short story in the magazine ‘Impetus’ and then of a produced play, his hosts seem to remain shaken by his presence.

There’s a great scene where Peter and Cathy are shut out from a party going on in their own house, a party we don’t see, and they share wine on the stairs before arguing, again, about their unpaying guest. “Where can he go?” “I don’t know.” “Sad, isn’t it?”.

Robin singing snatches of ‘Over The Rainbow’ probably gives us a large clue these days as to what’s going on – not sure that fifty years ago this would have been as obvious. But then there’s a lovely moment where Peter offers to light his cigarette, and Robin grasps his wrist and holds it just a fraction too long, and then we know, even as they continue to dance around the subject and goad and needle each other.

Then the moment. “I love you!” And an eyebrow raised, beautifully done by Lynch, rejecting his friend with a carefully phrased retort: “Cathy’s right. You can be something of a liability.” Cathy, for her part, is goading too, with a clumsy kiss filled with contempt and a warning to Robin that she knows he aims to take Peter away from her.

There’s music all the way through this play, whether from the LPs which play filling the room (a glorious scene with a classical chorus), or Robin, alone in his lonely bed, whistling. Everyone seems to be heading for breaking point throughout – this is a darker, more dangerous turn away from the niceties of Coward’s ‘Design for Living’ which balances a similar triangle. Peter even makes boiling a kettle full of menace. Robin is as desperate as coiled springs. Cathy is manically miserable.

I didn’t see the twist coming, and that probably makes it effective even now. Robin’s last line in the play is “I can be nice only so long. You know?”, and after that he proves it with his actions and the way they finally tear the couple apart. There’s also a mysterious visitor, who sheds light on what has gone before.

And Peter? Well, Robin said he was ‘just like him’ but ‘safe as houses’, and we understand that, and so does Cathy. The two ‘nicest people in the world’ have destroyed themselves, and there’s a chilling scene where Peter in an act of verbal and physical violence lets out his feelings on the girl Robin had to visit back in the early part of the play.

The three leads are extremely effective together, and there is a real sense throughout that something is going to explode, but we don’t know what – and it never quite does. The gay angle is handled well, and we completely understand what has been going on, and it is quite pathetic to watch this sad trio approach their own private darkness.

My visit to the Mediatheque was completed by watching the final episode of 1957’s television serial for children, the adaptation of ‘The Silver Sword’ by Ian Serraillier, which had been published the previous year.  A tale of four Polish children around the time of the Second World War (including familar names Melvyn Hayes (aged 21) and Frazer Hines (aged 12)) this does look as if it would be well worth watching were the whole series to become available.