BBC ghost story productions often have a similar feeling about them: creeping up on you from an innocuous start, throwing in a few familiar faces that make you feel quite at home before making the best of a couple of special effects and the calibre of the actors to give a chill or two. From Whistle And I’ll Come To You (1968) to Michael Palin’s great turn in the recent Remember Me (2014), there’s a long history of programmes that are worth watching again as we come around to Halloween once more.
Now we also have The Green Man on DVD to enjoy, and it’s a good one that definitely has the feel of a BBC production to it. First shown in three parts in 1990, it’s based on a Kingsley Amis novel and contains a bawdy element that leading man Albert Finney plays up to brilliantly. He has a seedy magnificence as Maurice Allington, the owner of a hotel and restaurant in Cambridgeshire that is apparently haunted by a seventeenth century figure of local legend, Doctor Thomas Underhill. This chap once enjoyed seducing young girls by conjuring saucy visions, and now he’s decided to appear to Maurice, and enlist his help in new enterprises of evil from beyond the grave.
What follows is a ghost story that also manages to be a sex comedy without sacrificing either the humour or the horror, but makes a blend all of its own. I found it quite a charming piece of work, much like Maurice himself, and it’s not afraid to lead you up the garden path and then pounce out at you from behind the bushes (which also sounds like something Maurice would do, come to think of it). For instance, it uses sound particularly well; there’s a great moment where the camera pans slowly across a bathroom, showing wine, candles, bubbles in the tub, while noises of pleasure emanate forth. But no, it’s not a sex scene but Maurice alone in the bath, smacking his lips together over his alcoholic drink while a copy of the Kingsley Amis novel The Old Devils sits next to him. A lot of this wry-wrong-footing goes on, and I really enjoyed that playful element of it.
It does kick up a gear into some great supernatural moments at times, and the presence of Michael Culver as Doctor Underhill’s ghost really adds a lot here, conveying menace and mischief with his long, pale face. Culver is one of those familiar faces that I mentioned earlier; he’s been in so many television shows from Cadfael to The Darling Buds Of May to New Tricks to The Professionals, (and also played Captain Needa in The Empire Strikes Back) and he’s not alone in a cast you’ll recognise. Josie Lawrence, Linda Marlowe and Nicky Henson are also along for the ride, and give strong supporting turns.
But the real draw here in setting off the whole series with a classic macabre edge is the presence of Michael Hordern as Maurice’s father. Lead actor of the aforementioned Whistle And I’ll Come To You, he brings instant gravitas to the proceedings, and is unbeatable at making scary scenes come to life; the terror on his face at a key early moment establishes the ghostly elements as believable even if some of the special effects aren’t all that great.
So you can add The Green Man to the list of BBC gems that are worth a watch again, particularly as the evenings draw in and the witching time of year comes around once more. Hotelier Maurice tells a strong ghost story to the guests who come to dine at The Green Man, and he also seems to relish becoming part of a real ghost story too; the series builds to a confrontation between Maurice and Underhill that is very effective and quite thought-provoking. But never fear – then we are straight back to the sex comedy, and somehow the whole thing resolves with a few last lines delivered by Finney with real pathos.
Add it to your collection of BBC ghost dramas, and it won’t look out of place with the best of them.
The Green Man is available on DVD now.
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