Sometimes surfing the internet can be productive, especially if venture into YouTube land and type in the names of a few famous ghost stories. I had never heard of this 1983 Granada TV anthology series. Sadly, it only seems to be available as a Region 1 (North American) DVD. But if you are suffering from Region 2 syndrome you could still play it on a PC if you don't have a multi-region player. And there's always YouTube (hint, hint).
Shades of Darkness was a fairly high-concept series for Granada– it's hard to see British commercial television trying anything like it today. The DVD consists of seven stand-alone dramas, each running to just around 50 minutes to fill an hour-long slot with one commercial break. The Internet Movie Database describes Shades... as 'an anthology of short mysterious dramas, each with a supernatural twist'. But the imdb offers a little mystery in itself, because while the DVD has seven stories, the series as televised consisted of nine, divided into two seasons, the second of which consisted of just two programmes broadcast in 1986. Very odd.
The two 'missing' stories are 'Seaton's Aunt' by Walter de la Mare, and 'The Last Séance' by Agatha Christie. I assume that these stories couldn't be released on DVD for copyright reasons. Even more confusingly, while the series was made in 1983 two episodes – the Christie and 'The Demon Lover', an Elizabeth Bowen story – were screened in 1986.
Enough of the vagaries of Eighties ITV scheduling – what's the series like? Well, what we have here are variably faithful adaptations of some classic tales, plus a few that are rather obscure. I certainly don't recall reading 'The Maze', by C.H.B. Kitchin. But the dramatisation, scripted by Ken Taylor, is rather good. Francesca Annis and James Bolam are excellent in the lead roles of a mismatched couple with an imaginative little daughter who enjoys playing in the old, run-down maze of their country home. With skill and economy we learn that this if in fact the wife's family home, where she grew up. And, one day in the maze, she underwent a childish 'marriage' to a gardener's boy. As young adults she and the gardener (played by the excellent Duncan Preston) enjoyed an affair of sorts, one cut short by his untimely death. Has he returned to the maze? And if so, what for?
'The Maze' is one of the most successful adaptations of the series, but is marred by an intrusive musical score. I could just about bear the usual horror movie 'make you jump' stuff. But sadly, Shades... is plagued by something far worse – a pretentious pseudo-classical soundtrack that is presumably supposed to point up the serious, 'literary' nature of the entertainment but instead simply destroys the mood. It's far worse in some stories than in others, but it grates in all of them.
Oh well, onwards and sideways to Edith Wharton. Two of her stories were chosen for the series by producer June Wyndham Davies (who went on to helm the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series). Of the three, by far the best-known is 'Afterward', the one about the ghost who is never recognised as such at the time. The version offered here is quite good, not least thanks to the strong casting and decent production values that distinguish this series. The music is, sadly, as bad as ever, but the actual ghost is well-done, not least thanks to a couple of red herrings.
The other Wharton story, 'Bewitched', is slightly more problematic. The story is steeped in the superstitions of New England, but Grenada had to relocate it to an unspecified part of England. The result is rather unconvincing, as some good actors – Eileen Atkins, Alfred Burke and Gareth Thomas – tromp about the seaside in early Victorian attire and try to deal with a love that will not die. Adultery, madness, superstition and something nasty in the woodshed are all present and correct. But while most scenes are well handled, it never feels quite right, and some commenters have complained that the adaptation is a little too free in places.
Altogether more satisfying is 'Feet Foremost', one of L.P. Hartley's best-known tales, here adapted by the renowned Alan Plater. Hartley's story, by its very nature, presents serious problems to the script writer, but Plater handles the tricky material with great skill. This is in many ways the most traditional of the stories, but it is also one of the most powerful. The simple scene in which an innocent country house guest lifts a girl over the puddle in the doorway is carefully underplayed, and all the better for it.
Even better is Plater's adaptation of 'The Intercessor' by May Sinclair. John Duttine is excellent in the role of the writer who rents a room in a fairly grim farmhouse so as to complete a project uninterrupted by urban hurly-burly. We all know what happens next, of course. But the resident ghost is not entirely conventional, and the way in which the writer's reaction to it is bound up with the suffering – and eventual redemption – of the family is superbly handled. What's more, although the ghost of a little girl is by no means malevolent, her appearances are very effective.
Another May Sinclair story, 'The Lady's Maid's Bell', was adapted by Ken Taylor. This is a solid, unexceptional take on yet another story about a ghost in a posh country house. It's most notable for the fact that the ghost is played by June Brown, and for the implicit feminist sub-text which is slightly obscured (I thought) by the emphasis on restrained performance and period detail.
Finally, there's Elizabeth Bowen's wartime story 'The Demon Lover'. I've always felt rather ambivalent toward this one, Derek Mahon's adaptation does nothing to change my view. I think it's a very interesting story, and here it certainly gets the full period drama treatment. The cast is superb, with supporting roles for John Fortune, Robert Hardy, Hugh Grant, Dorothy Tutin and Miranda Richardson. Adrienne Corri provides a strong lead performance as the woman who – visiting her shut-up London home during the Blitz – finds a note from a dead man whose intentions are no more honourable now than they were in life.
The surreal atmosphere of the Blitz is very well-evoked, and money was clearly thrown at set and costume – but is it a good ghost story? Well, for me much of it is a little too precious and evasive. But having said, the ending is nightmarish enough for any Aickman fan. Indeed, Bowen's influence on Aickman might be a useful line of research... But before getting sidetracked, let's just give 'The Demon Lover' a silver star on the wallchart.
Overall, Shades of Darkness is an eminently watchable series, despite being incomplete. It's certainly not anything like a horror series, or at least not if you like your horror gory. The most violent scene involves Duncan Preston falling out of a tree. And, of course, every story distances the viewer thanks to its historical setting. But if you prefer your horrors to be hinted at rather than shown outright, and if you enjoy quality TV drama, Shades... might be a worth a watch.