The canonical works of 1970s TV folk horror tend to be rather posh, even when the intent is to show up urban/rural-rich/poor class divides. In Robin Redbreast, Penda’s Fen, A Ghost Story for Christmas, The Owl Service, An Exorcism etc., relatively privileged folk fall among the country poor and suffer for it in a manner that might be intended as criticism of patronising middle-class attitudes or income inequality but has the side effect of literally demonising the working classes (this isn’t just a UK phenomenon, American liberals like Stephen King often do it too). An exception is this 47-minute TV play, written by the Scot Peter McDougall (but set in Cornwall) which has an underclass protagonist and a feel for economic/social desperation as well as a sense of landscape, myth and cyclical horror. It has a lot in common with Penda’s Fen, but its young lead goes to a grim Comprehensive rather than a private school. The real-seeming young cast are drawn from the same talent pool seen in Scum.
Tarry-Dan (Paul Curran), a mad-eyed whiskery tramp, stares through the bars of a school playground fence, in a way that even in the 1970s would have excited disapproval – and the kids chant a rhyme about him. Jonah Grattan (Colin Mayes), a troublemaking ‘toerag’, becomes obsessed with the old man, and suffers nightmares of an ancient battle (depicted in a stained glass window in the local church) which involve the betrayal of a sacred trust and beheading. Jonah chivvies his three well-drawn lout mates into trying to track down Dan’s unknown lair, searching through caves and getting spooked. He’s even disturbed enough to call on his headmaster (Colin Jeavons) on a Sunday morning (‘have you come to beat me up?’ asks the astonished teacher) to ask about local lore, which involves a city that used to stand where the village now is but was destroyed by sea-raiders in Arthurian times. Finally, Jonah alienates all his friends – none of whom actually like him that much, but all of whom would credibly hang about with a kid they think is tough – and on his sixteenth birthday confronts Dan in the church, where a ritual plays out and as in most of these stories a curse/tradition is passed down. Or maybe, as one of Jonah’s friends says, a loser teenager realises that the only adult future he’s likely to have is as a crackpot derelict.
Mayes, who had a scattering of other roles in things like the remake of All Quiet on the Western Front, is among the most believable kids in 1970s drama. With a mullet, hare-lip and vaguely shapeless face, he is credibly a hardnut/nutter school outsider and genuinely easy to hate (I remember kids like him, and they were all cunts to me) but that makes it far more moving and unsettling when we see how terrified he is of the vast forces of history, nature and blood arrayed against him. McDougall, whose other works (the controversial Just Another Saturday) tend to focus on the sectarian divide in Scotland, understands doomed-to-fail kids aren’t always stupid. Jonah struggles with school subjects but has an acute understanding of the dynamics of his friend group (they hang out in a shed, which suggests the limits of their horizons). Darra (Michael Deeks) is the smart, bored kid who will get on and probably has a job at the post office lined up … Kenny (Gareth Shiels) is the kid with no other options who nurses resentments and is just realising he doesn’t enjoy getting into fights … and Willie (Simon Gipps-Kent) the joker who keeps needling but is expert at ducking the consequences. The awful hairstyles, non-fashion clobber, big boots and general level of sulkiness are spot-on for the period, though they might now look like a League of Gentlemen caricature. These are kids in 1978 for whom punk was a distant rumour and probably made up by art school wankers – they wear camouflage jackets, anything they can find to keep out the rain, and too-short jeans that have probably had the flares cut off.
The BBC didn’t push the boat out as far for this as they did with Penda’s Fen, so it’s the familiar mix of 16mm-look location shots of the seaside town and studio sets with intense, theatrical confrontations. Directed by John Reardon.