An old house in the Clifton area of Bristol is the new home of Timothy Clare, a noted conductor and concert pianist and his young family. The elderly Mrs Betterton, the previous owner of the house, has a sale of various heirlooms before she leaves the property for good.
Timothy buys a richly coloured old painting. The canvas depicts the Bristol Riots of 1831. Steven, the eldest of the Clare children, buys an old military helmet which he wants to polish up to its former glory. His younger brother Ben discovers, to his horror that, when worn, the helmet resurrects the ghost of a Napoleonic soldier.
His sister Jenny makes friends with Mrs Betterton’s young granddaughter, Emily. Having warned Jenny of ghosts that inhabit the bedrooms, Emily gives her a musical box which, when played, makes the ghost of a chambermaid visible. The ghosts appear only to the children, their more sceptical parents accuse them of making up “silly stories”.
The children discover a secret room at the back of the house, the door to which is hidden behind a wardrobe in the back bedroom. By now they have involved their increasingly suspicious father and he discovers a particularly gruesome sight on entering the mysterious room: a bed-ridden skeleton.
Concerned by the sudden outbreak of strange phenomena, the two boys contact a local ghost hunter, Milton Guest, to shed light on the mystery and hopefully exorcise the spirits from the house forever.
But what is the mystery of the Clifton House? Why is the previous owner so reluctant to speak about her time there? Will the Clare family ever be free of the spirits?
Produced by HTV in the summer of 1977 and transmitted on ITV in early 1978, The Clifton House Mystery is a superior slice of supernatural family drama. Seen from a 2010 perspective, Peter Sallis is the most familiar face in the serial and he only appears in the final three episodes as the ghost hunter Milton Guest.
It’s quite refreshing to see a drama not over-dependant on familiar names to make it work. That said, viewers who saw this the first time around will recognise a young Robert Craig Hall playing the youngest of the Clare children. He was cast the same year as the rather shy school swot Justin Bennett, who was ‘slumming it’ in the inaugural series of Grange Hill.
The performances are of a uniformly high standard throughout. The actors bring a rare conviction to their parts. The tension builds nicely thanks, in part, to the lack of incidental music which invokes a wonderfully eerie atmosphere.
The dinner party scene where the guests are suddenly covered in blood dripping from the ceiling seems to have been an inspiration for the memorable Hammer House of Horror episode The House That Bled To Death.
Suddenly aware of a need to educate its young audience, the serial explores the Bristol riots in some detail in the final episodes. The ending is somewhat open-ended, though.
All in all, a cut above much of the drama on children’s televison at the time and that is saying something, as the quality of late seventies children’s drama was remarkably high. Something of a forgotten gem.
The video transfer is very good and the serial looks pin sharp, arguably, better on DVD than when first transmitted in 1978.
The lack of extras is a shame given Network’s track record in this department. It would have been nice to have seen something about HTV’s commitment to this kind of drama in the Seventies, perhaps a commentary on one of the episodes. Maybe Peter Sallis could have shared his memories?
However, when the main feature is this good, extras may seem a tad superflous anyway. Perfect viewing as darkness falls….
The Clifton House Mysteryis out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.