This six-part ITV teatime serial, adapted from Catherine Storr’s novel Marianne Dreams, and has lingered in the memories of many ‘70s kids who saw it then. In the days before VCRs, let alone DVD releases, a lot of TV had a sort of hallucinatory power which came from being seen once (and, in the case of serials, maybe missing an episode or two along the way because going to tea at Gran’s meant a whole chunk of story was irretrievably lost) and festering in the mind for decades, with a few powerful moments making you misremember much of the rest of it. Often, memories of different shows got mixed up – landing this with such an off-the-shelf, unresonant title made it easy to confuse with any number of 1970s serials and one-off plays which featured creepy standing stones (Children of the Stones, most obviously). Marianne Dreams was also adapted as Paperhouse, which overlaps to some extent with Escape into Night but takes a few variant turns and features a different ‘big bad’.
Though made in colour, it survives only in black and white (the way most of its audience saw it in 1972 when colour TV was a luxury) and isn’t an easy watch if taken in one big lump – the performances all have that hectoring, strident tone of kids’ drama in the ‘70s, the claustrophobia is emphasised by the tiny cast (five characters for two and a half hours) and few sets (basically, three rooms), the script has to pause and play catch-up every episode (the makers had to take into account viewers who’d missed the story so far) and the plot stutters somewhat. It also isn’t as resolutely focused on being terrifying as many remember – which may, paradoxically, be why its disturbing aspects were so effective, in that they creep in surprisingly so the last episodes are much darker than the first. Marianne Austin (Vikki Chambers) is thrown from her pony and ordered by her doctor (Edmund Pegge) to stay in bed for months, which puts her in a bad mood to start with – her father is away drilling for oil, and her mother (Sonia Graham) is a long-suffering housewife, but a home teacher (Patricia Maynard) comes in to keep her up with her schoolwork and she becomes interested in hearing about another of the woman’s pupils, Mark (Steven Jones), who is also bed-ridden and has a potentially fatal illness. Using an old pencil found in a box, Marianne begins to draw a house in a desolate landscape – and, in her dreams, finds herself there. When she adds something, stairs or bars on the windows, they appear in the dream, and she draws Mark in as a resident, but keeps being irritated by him and changing the picture for the worse, adding a guardian ring of sinister stones with human eyes.
The ‘rules’ are established and played by – only the one pencil works, and what she draws with it can’t be rubbed out – but the story is advanced by the heroine’s believable temper tantrums, thoughtless actions and half-belief that none of this matters because it’s a dream (though she suspects the real Mark is affected by what happens in her imaginary house). For all the awkward line readings, these kids are more believable than most children in TV and film these days – they don’t act like miniature, responsible adults but bicker the way bored children actually do, and the heroine’s streak of cruelty is understandable without being over-analysed. Storr’s idea is intriguing and appealing (it mutated via Paperhouse into a Dr Who episode, ‘Fear Her’) and the production does a lot with limited resources to make the drawn house an unearthly environment (whispering sounds, ticking clocks and ambient music help). The stones with eyes are a nightmare image, but used sparingly. Written by Ruth Boswell; directed by Richard Bramall.