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Network Double Bills: Seance on a Wet Afternoon and Ring of Spies

  Network on Air's streaming service is continuing the idea of using the brand's extensive film library for a series of double bills, inspired by the way to watch movies that only started to be widely phased out in the nineteen-eighties. Before that, tradition dictated that if you attended your local cinema before then, you would be treated to a set of two films, plus advertisements, trailers and even short films to supply what would be regarded as a full evening's entertainment (or indeed a full afternoon's entertainment). One of the double bills Network has offered up sees a pair of black and white crime dramas of the nineteen-sixties take the limelight.

First up is a true crime offering, Ring of Spies from 1964. Britain is under threat from those spies, who could be lurking anywhere in the country, walking past you in the street or your next-door neighbours. These dangerous people place the liberty, values and even the lives of the nation under pressure, and when caught the law is not amused. For example, there is Henry Houghton (Bernard Lee), low-level bureaucrat, ex-British Navy, in Warsaw, an alcoholic thinking little of womanising - and happy to pass secrets to the Soviets. Replaced in this position he returned to England, the town of Portland, given a different, also low-level job at a base. But he was brimming with resentment...

This was a fictionalisation of the Portland Spy Ring from 1961 that rocked Britain, showing spies could be living in the most mundane suburbia, literally next door to you. This weirdly banal paranoia was well-captured, matter of fact stylings growing curiously tense: although the stakes were high the details were so prosaic as to be perversely unexciting, and director Robert Tronson was able to elicit this paradox very effectively while sticking loosely, but not too loosely, to the truth. Equally good was Lee who had become known as M in the James Bond films, an item of casting that was quite inspired, for his Houghton character was about as far from the upstanding boss as he could get.

And yet, they still existed in the same world of espionage, only this was reality where bedding beautiful women and gadget-packed car chases did not happen to agents like Houghton. The best he gets is dowdy spinster Bunty Gee (Margaret Tyzack) who, his lecherous ways that more often than not rebuffed, he manages to charm merely by showing an interest (and watching her badminton matches!). There was nothing glamorous here, unless you counted William Sylvester's supposedly Canadian, then supposedly American, but actually Russian, contact who convinces the couple to work for him by "borrowing" documents from the safe at the base so they can be photographed and turned into microdots (do spies still use those?) all the better to be smuggled to foreign climes.

Decades later, when we hear of spies they are poisoning so blatantly it's as if the Russians are taunting the West, knowing there will be no real repercussions, but back then they were more careful, and the spy game more convoluted. Plenty of detail was included here, they used the actual locations where possible, but it was the strength of the performances and direction that served up its chill, designed, apparently, to have you wondering about the person in the cinema seat next to you - even if it was the person you had shown up to the picture palace with. The first half had Houghton and Gee drawn in, the second had them caught, which common knowledge back in the mid-sixties but here may contain unintended suspense to modern viewers. With nothing to set the pulse pounding by design, Ring of Spies nevertheless drew you in, and its general accuracy only more so, this being the milieu of shortwave numbers stations and code phrases passed in art galleries.

Then we have the intermission, which apparently amongst this sea of monochrome was in full colour, a wide array of tempting treats available in the foyer such as a fruit parfait (they seem to have fallen out of fashion), and a glimpse of future James Bond George Lazenby. There are also ads for toothpaste and an Birmingham electronic goods store (not far from this cinema) before we are served up a Look at Life, one of a series of light documentary shorts, this one concerned with unusual but desirable houses: converted windmills, oasthouses, and so on (though how comfortable you would be under thirty thousand gallons of water in a tank is debatable). Then the trailers for coming attractions grace the screen.

The main feature is also from 1964: Seance on a Wet Afternoon, one of a number of black and white thrillers from the sixties that doubled as psychological drama, delving into the often cracked minds of the participants as they try to pull of some crime or other. This time it was Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough who were under the microscope (or on the psychiatrist's couch) as the Savages, a married couple in middle age who have no children since their only son died as a baby, stillborn. This has affected them deeply, to the extent that the wife believes the dead infant talks to her as her spirit guide, and she makes her living as a medium for the locals.

The husband doesn't work at all thanks to bad asthma incapacitating him, though he gets into some physical shenanigans and stressful situations that you would think would have set that off, yet do not. As you can expect, they may live in a large, draughty-looking house, but money is not exactly plentiful, so Stanley hits on an idea to generate some cash and put her supposed clairvoyance in a beneficial light. Attenborough will kidnap the young daughter of a wealthy businessman, and demand a ransom, while his missus will "find" her during a seance thanks to her already being well aware of where she is in the first place: which is "safely" in a locked room their house.

In the same vein as contemporaries like Bunny Lake is Missing or The Third Secret, this was as much fascinated by the abnormal thought patterns that bring outwardly normal folks to terrible deeds as it was about the deeds themselves, and the two leads performed admirably as the couple who only really have each other, and yet are managing to do dreadful damage to their minds by encouraging their behaviour. Bryan Forbes was the director and screenwriter, enjoying a purple patch in his career that would return only fitfully from then on, and he had a handle on the downbeat ambience of the central aberration of two souls damning themselves through self-delusion and unthinking malice, convinced they are doing the right thing and not viewing this from the outside.

Call it a folie a deux, but there were rarely more well-thought out, while utterly pathetic, criminals on the screen short of them being comical, which this assuredly was not: not one joke in this. The extended sequence where Mr Savage rushes around London - the location work was excellent - to pick up the fortune in ransom but avoid the police was a tour de force of Forbes' direction, a flurry of bus and subway journeys, frantic calls from telephone boxes and costume changes, but it was Stanley who made the biggest impression as the dangerous but pitiable Mrs Savage, truly committed to her psychic powers even as the film throws them into sharp relief as evidence of a fractured mentality. We can feel sorry for her, since it was the loss of her child that sent her over the edge, but there was something resistible about her despite that, probably because of her unthinking cruelty for her own personal gain (when the little girl gets sick, we fear for her life). The film certainly was sceptical about mediumship and leaves us in no doubt that it was the work of the charlatan, the exploiter, and the self-deceiving. This wraps up a somewhat sobering double bill.

These double bills are a nostalgic in the right way rendition of the sort of evenings out of yesteryear that so many Brits would experience, and as the prints of the films are pristine, reminiscent of what they would be like to watch as new. Click here to join the Network website.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018