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1960s, BBC 2, Experimental drama, John McGrath

Restoring Ragnarok

The Day of Ragnarok was transmitted as part of the BBC 2 series, Six, on 2 January 1965.

Written, produced and directed by John McGrath it featured Elizabeth MacLennan, Tamara Hinchco, Pauline Boty and Nicol Williamson in a drama about an impending nuclear war in which two mysterious women lead dozens of women to a vigil in a London park (‘The Park’ was the working title for the drama) in a form of collective feminist protest against the threat of war.

In the Radio Times John McGrath described the film in the following terms:

“Tonight’s production is an attempt to make a film with a poetic structure. It does tell a fairly straightforward story, but it uses images from the story put together to raise echoes and reverberations throughout, to create a network of meaning, to allow the film to aim at the level of myth. There are two main forces in conflict: one is represented by the two dark girls, who look at the world as it approaches disaster with grim, unblinking responsibility. The other is represented by the young blonde girl and her lover. The conflict is set on the day when a nuclear war becomes inevitable, and is seen against a kind of ‘Lysistrata’ withdrawal from society, from love, from sex, by a group of young girls.

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The film has many layers of meaning, and in its dream-like atmosphere many fears and omens come up to the surface momentarily and disappear. There is no dialogue as such: only visuals, faces, and Dudley Moore’s powerful music. It is a difficult film, but also a very exciting one.

Ragnarok is, according to the Norse myth, the day on which the world ends as the old order of Gods is destroyed by the new. In this film the old myth comes uncomfortably close to the new reality.” (Radio Times, 31 December 1964, p.4)

Preliminaries

When I was researching a paper for the BBC2 50th Anniversary Conference, held at the Science Museum in April 2014, I tried to view Ragnarok along with the other films from the series, having only previously seen the first two films: Ken Russell’s Diary of a Nobody (12 December 1964) and Michael Elster’s The Chase (19 December 1964), which I’d written about in my book on Troy Kennedy Martin (MUP, 2007, pp.88-90) as Kennedy Martin co-wrote it. While I managed to get to see the other four in the series I was only able to view a mute copy of The Day of Ragnarok. I was told that there had been several attempts made by the BBC Archive to synchronise the sound with the picture, but they were unsuccessful.

In the course of researching the paper on Six and the follow-up series, Five More, I happened to meet Andrew Martin from the BBC Archive at a Kaleidoscope event and he was able to give me the following information about the material that the BBC held on Ragnarok:

“Looking at the holdings again, it seems that the pictures for Ragnarok are in 3 reels and the mag sound in 5 reels, but the last 2 reels are missing (and the original tx mags were also missing) – although we are supposed to have the complete sound as optical neg (hopefully that’s the case). So in theory we could sort out a proper copy in due course.” (Email from Andrew Martin, 14 April 2014)

Discussion continued over several months with Andrew involving another colleague, Robin Pearson, in the correspondence. In October 2014 Andrew forwarded the following message from Robin:

“The existing sepmags don’t run in sync with the pic. (Or sometimes they run in sync for a brief section, before going out again). It’s almost as if the pic we have is one version whilst the mag is another. We can’t even guess at sync for most of the film as the sound is so obscure that it could be matched up against anything.

We transferred #2 of the sound neg to see if that would help. It starts off in sync with #2 pic (PLB39095) which was promising, but then just when we thought we were in luck, it went wildly out again.

The only people who might have a clue are the original editor/director, but as they are both probably no longer with us I fear that this is a mystery that will never be solved.”

Andrew added: “I am intrigued by this programme now, is it as Robin suggests, that someone edited the prints which is why they no longer sync.  It may be possible to work out what bit of sound goes with what bit of picture and what is missing … but unfortunately I doubt we have the resources to do that kind of investigatory work – it would need someone with the spare time, and the will to get it done.  Given that the sound track is so avant garde it sounds like it would be a tough job but maybe one to aspire to …” (10 October 2014)

The suggestion that there might have been two versions of Ragnarok and that this was contributing to the difficulties of synching the surviving reels of picture and sound was to prove crucial in subsequent attempts to restore the film. I had already been forced to abandon the hope that we might be able to include Ragnarok in a season of Forgotten Dramas that we were planning for BFI Southbank but I was still intent on trying to find a solution to the problem.

I knew that a longer version of Ken Russell’s Diary of a Nobody had been shown at the London Film Festival in October/November 1964 and that all of the Six films had been screened at the Festival before being shown on BBC 2. Pursuing this I found a vitriolic review of The Day of Ragnarok in a 1965 Films & Filming article on the London Film Festival which referred to it as being “a mere fifty minutes” (David Holland, Films & Filming, January 1965, p.41). Yet the version that was broadcast on BBC 2 on 2 January 1965 was scheduled in a 40 minute slot, from 10.10-10.50 pm. It appeared that The Day of Ragnarok, like Diary of a Nobody, had been re-edited for television.

Following our successful season of Forgotten Dramas at BFI Southbank in February 2015 we made a proposal for a second season and I included Ragnarok in the hope that we would be able to resolve the problem of synching sound to picture. I contacted Andrew Martin again and received this reply:

“I’ve looked at the holdings again and the problem does seem to be that the end of the programme is missing its sound – neither the mag track nor the optical track seem to be complete. Fx and music tracks existed at one point but were junked a very long time ago.  That said, there was an issue with the sync on the earlier material as well. Still, I think it is worth trying to fix what there is, and seeing what enlightenment can be gained from the script.” (22 June 2015)

There was no copy of the script at the BBC Written Archives Centre but I’d found draft screenplays in the John McGrath Special Collection at the BFI. These revealed there was virtually no dialogue in the film, apart from one character saying ‘No!’ at one point, although this did not seem to be there in the shorter version I’d seen. There was also a reference in the revised screenplay (dated 1 July 1964) to “Elizabeth’s finger pushing start button on tape recorder in Sound Control Gallery to start the opening music of Dr. Who”, but again this did not seem to be there in the shorter version as there was no scene in a Sound Control Gallery.

A further email from Andrew Martin suggested that some of the holdings for Ragnarok were probably junked in the 1970s, or even the late ‘60s:

“The fx and music tracks all have EN accession numbers, which have not been used for a very long time, so the fact that they were never renumbered suggests they were junked long ago – at least 30 years if not more. It may be that it seemed that we had a mixed final soundtrack at the time, as there is such a soundtrack logged, except that it is unfortunately down as being missing.” (24 June 2015)

At this point I copied in Marcus Prince, the TV Programmer at BFI Southbank, to the discussions I’d been having regarding Ragnarok and Andrew Martin appraised Marcus of the situation regarding the BBC’s holdings on Ragnarok:

“Infax/Fabric logs 3 reels of print and neg (the complete programme), but only 3 out of an original 5 reels of mag track sound and 2 reels out of three of optical negative soundtrack. A complete 3-reel magnetic soundtrack went missing at some unspecified point in the past, and individual fx, music and dialogue tracks are listed as having been junked, again at an unspecified time but likely to be several decades ago… Even given the likelihood that part of the soundtrack is irretrievably lost (as far as we know), enough of this experimental production does still exist that I think it would be worth trying to restore the best available copy.” (5 August 2015)

Andrew suggested involving the BBC Archive’s Film Preservation team in the discussion, the team that included Robin Pearson, and there was a rapid exchange of emails between Marcus, Andrew, me and Paul Bentz, Senior Media Manager at the BBC Archive with responsibility for the Film Preservation team.

I sent the notes I’d taken on the draft screenplays in the hope they might prove useful to the Film Preservation team and Paul Bentz replied:

“I have talked to film area and they have tried to get the sound to sync up three or four times, they haven’t had any success. I will pass on your notes to see if that might help. If not would it be an idea to get together, either at the BFI or here at Perivale to try and get the sound and picture together?” (5 August 2015)

After some discussion between Marcus and I about whether the film merited the (potentially quite large) cost of attempting to restore the soundtrack and where that money might come from, Paul Bentz emailed Marcus, informing him that:

“The film team have been trying to get this film sync up for a few years, and still are struggling to get it correct. Before the money is sorted I think that Lez should come down and we all can see what the issues are and see what can be done to sort them out.” (7 August 2015)

So, on 21 August 2015, 16 months after first viewing the mute copy of The Day of Ragnarok, I went to the BBC Archive at Perivale, sat down with Robin Pearson and finally got to hear the surviving reels of soundtrack.

Synching the sound

The Day of Ragnarok begins with a reading (by David de Keyser) from the Norse legend of Ragnarok, over a montage of images including newspaper headlines about atomic bombs being detonated by various countries, a rocket being launched, and a Japanese-style relief depicting two bodies lying on the ground beneath a tree as the title comes up (see above).

This is followed by a television newsreader (John Morgan) reading a report about “the current situation in Finland…” and ending with “there can be no doubt that the world stands at the brink of an all-out, full-scale nuclear war.”

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This was the first point where synchronised sound was evident and it corresponded quite clearly to the beginning of the first reel of sound. When the scene changes to Elizabeth MacLennan standing outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square there is a sound bridge as the news report ends and ambient traffic noise comes in, followed by a brief snatch of Dudley Moore’s score, before a cut to Pauline Boty in her apartment, looking at a painting she is working on (Boty was a well-known pop artist who appeared in Ken Russell’s Pop Goes the Easel, BBC, 25 March 1962).

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This scene is accompanied by a cover version of ‘Zip-a Dee-Doo-Dah’ on the soundtrack (there were several cover versions of ‘Zip-a Dee-Doo-Dah’ recorded in the early 1960s – this is possibly by Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans). During the scene the telephone starts ringing, stopping just as Boty is about to pick it up, another clear indication that the soundtrack matched at this point.

The next scene has Elizabeth MacLennan and Tamara Hinchco on the roof of a building in London (possibly the roof of Troy Kennedy Martin’s flat in Maida Vale). There is ambient traffic sound and music over this scene but no dialogue. This is followed by a cut to a brief scene with Pauline Boty and Nicol Williamson in which, although there is again no dialogue, the sound of Williamson blowing Boty a kiss and her laughing provide the sync points.

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So far, so good. The first six minutes of picture matched the first six minutes on the first reel of sound. But when the picture cuts to a scene with Elizabeth and Tamara in what might be a museum, in which foetuses and body parts are preserved in jars, the sound of a pinball machine did not seem to correspond at all. This is what had caused the problem for the Film Preservation team at the BBC Archive with the sound “going out.” The pinball machine noises continue for one minute and 35 seconds on the sound reel while the museum scene is one minute and 24 seconds. But after the pinball sound effects there was a quiet passage on the sound reel with barely audible footsteps, culminating in a dramatic musical crescendo at the point at which Elizabeth is looking at a foetus of conjoined twins in a jar (an image seen in the opening montage) and the scene cuts to Tamara on the rooftop, lying with her legs spread as if giving birth, the Post Office Tower seen in the distance.

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The scene continues with a musical sequence on the soundtrack comprising horns and strings. Then after 44 seconds the sound of an aircraft is heard and this clearly matched the shot of an aircraft coming in to land, so we were able to synchronise these two scenes to the remaining sound on reel PLM6067.

The pinball machine sound clearly did not fit. It was one of six sequences altogether, on three reels of sound, which did not match the pictures on this shorter version of the film. I concluded that all of this sound (amounting to nearly 8 minutes) was probably from the longer version of the film.

There followed, in the shorter version we were working with, two images of figures from the Norse legend of Ragnarok, one of which had been seen in the opening montage, followed by a short sequence in which Tamara is screenprinting the same image, while a news report is heard on the soundtrack about the situation in Finland where “Russian tanks on the border have been joined by what appears to be Chinese troop carriers.” However the first one minute and 37 seconds of sound on the second sound reel (PLS22443) did not match these images at all, which had again flummoxed the Film Preservation team. When Robin Pearson and I were viewing the material I connected the sound of a radio news report, one minute and 37 seconds into the reel, with the scene of Tamara screenprinting because the camera slowly zooms in on a radio during the scene.

The transition from the aircraft noise of the previous scene to this scene was not clear but when I eventually sat down with Tim Emblem-English, Archive Telecine Specialist at the BBC Studios & Post Production suite, three months later, to edit and transfer the sound, Tim found a way of mixing the sound from one scene to another which worked very well. (Tim also used Digital Video Noise Reduction to ‘clean up’ the picture during the course of the transfer, eliminating marks and scratches on the 35mm print to produce a very good quality digital copy).

Apart from the radio news report, the sound of Tamara screwing up a sheet of paper provided a clear sync point in the screenprinting scene, but when Tamara accidentally knocks the radio off the table the sound ends and the scene changes abruptly to Tamara standing beside a busy road, accompanied by loud traffic noise. This short scene (16 seconds) appeared to have been cut for the TV version of the film because the traffic sound continued on the sound reel while the picture cuts to a woman (Harriet Devine, daughter of the theatre director George Devine) sitting on a bed with a telephone to her ear. The sound for this scene followed 30 seconds later on the sound reel: a speaking clock giving us the sound of what she is listening to while she looks at a newspaper headline in The Guardian (dated 1 May 1964): ‘All nations alerted as war threat grows.’

Music then comes in with a cut to Elizabeth on a rooftop overlooking the Houses of Parliament, followed by a cut to Tamara and Elizabeth on the rooftop previously seen as a sense of growing expectation is reinforced by the music and by another newspaper headline: ‘Finland – Pressure Is On’ with the sub-heading: ‘Direct Confrontation Now Inevitable.’ Cut to an interior scene with Elizabeth and Tamara (and clear sync points) as they prepare for action, getting dressed in military-style khaki clothing. Then a cut to the gates of a park (Holland Park in London) accompanied by a return of the horn and string music as the camera shows us Elizabeth and Tamara standing at the entrance to the park.

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Subsequent shots show us Harriet Devine and then another woman (Ann Mitchell) arriving at the park, followed by short scenes introducing women who will also shortly be seen arriving at the park, including Pauline Boty.

This took us to the end of the first reel of picture (PLB39072: marked as reels 1 and 2 on the can), 14 minutes and 7 seconds into the film. The second reel of picture (PLB39095: marked as reels 3 and 4 on the can) continues with more women arriving at the park as the music builds in tempo, a beating drum underlining the impression of women on the march as dozens of women are seen entering the park, Pauline Boty being the last to arrive, escorted by Elizabeth MacLennan and Tamara Hinchco.

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Synchronising sound and picture throughout this sequence was unproblematic as all of the sound on the third reel (PLS22391), 7 minutes and 57 seconds, matched the picture, with a number of clear sync points despite the lack of dialogue. So we had 22 minutes of sync film and things were looking promising. However, there were no more reels of magnetic sound, only one long reel (PLM17128) which was a sepmag transfer from sound neg #2 (AAA82087). The quality of this was slightly inferior to that of the other sound reels but we were still hopeful that we might find the remaining sound on it. However the first 7 minutes and 57 seconds of sound on this reel was the same as the sound on PLS22391 and there was another 2 minutes and 8 seconds of music, similar to the melancholy park music – piano, harp, flute and violin – suggesting there may have been more footage of the women in the park in the longer version of the film.

On the picture reel however there followed a scene in which Nicol Williamson arrives at what appears to be a bombsite, but we had difficulty synchronising sound and picture here because once again there was more sound than the scene required. It was only subsequently, after numerous attempts, that I found a way to match the sound to the picture, 11 minutes and 15 seconds into the reel of sound neg. This meant leaving out the sound of children’s voices, a siren and an announcement that “this is a routine exercise, there is no cause for alarm” which probably accompanied a longer cut of this scene in the 50 minute version of the film.

The matching sound – ambient traffic noise, Nicol Williamson’s footsteps, a stretcher bearer stumbling on a pile of bricks – is followed by music as we cut back to the park, where the women’s vigil continues, the sound of fires crackling and Elizabeth snapping a twig providing the sync points. Then the sound goes out again for one minute and seven seconds in which there is the sound of a man sighing, a car driving past and footsteps which do not match the picture. This sound was probably from a longer cut of the next scene – Nicol Williamson in Pauline Boty’s apartment – because after 67 seconds the sound matches up again as Williamson bangs his hands on a table and proceeds to turn on various audio devices: a radio, television and record player, creating a cacophony of sound. As the picture cuts to Pauline Boty in the park being followed by Elizabeth and Tamara music comes in once more and the second reel of picture ends with a shot of Pauline Boty smiling as she sees Nicol Williamson approaching the park.

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Williamson’s approach is not revealed until the first shot on the third reel of film (PLM133187: marked as reel 5 on the can) and while the music continues on the sound neg for another 22 seconds that is all there is, the music stopping as Williamson climbs a fence as he approaches Boty.

The final reel of film continues for another 7 minutes and 31 seconds, but there was no more sound available to match the climactic events that take place. There is no indication of any dialogue during this final part of the film and it is likely that Dudley Moore’s “powerful music” as John McGrath described it rises to a dramatic crescendo as the two women brutally murder the lovers and then are distraught to see all the women leaving the park.

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A shot of the dead lovers is followed by a shot of the two women lying in the rain, apparently dead, in what might be a post-apocalyptic scenario. This final shot is held for a long time – nearly one minute – before the credits are superimposed, suggesting there was perhaps another reading from the Norse legend of Ragnarok over this shot to match the voiceover at the beginning of the film, the credits continuing for another minute over the same shot.

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In total the film is 37 minutes long, but the final 7 minutes and 38 seconds are mute. Finding the right sound to match each scene was like assembling a jigsaw. That there was originally a longer cut of the film is underlined by the fact that two people listed in the credits – Norman Scase and Paul Bonner – do not appear in the shorter version of the film and some of the women named on the credits – Ann Mitchell, Wendy Richard, Eleanor Fazan and Jane Percival – make only fleeting appearances in the shorter television version.

The attempt to restore The Day of Ragnarok to something approaching its original television form has been difficult and protracted. It illustrates that it is not only videotaped material and telerecordings that were at risk of being destroyed, in some cases filmed dramas, even when they have been shot on 35mm, have also been junked. While it is frustrating that we could not assemble a complete soundtrack to match the shorter version of the film at least we now have a film that can be screened in the next season of Forgotten Television Drama at BFI Southbank in 2017. That Ragnarok was worthy of restoration I have no doubt: as an ‘experimental’ drama addressing concerns about nuclear war in the mid-1960s it is a priceless historical document, with an outstanding score by Dudley Moore, and featuring several remarkable actors now no longer with us – Elizabeth MacLennan, Pauline Boty, Nicol Williamson and Wendy Richard.

I am extremely grateful to Andrew Martin, Robin Pearson, Paul Bentz, Dan Ahearne and Tim Emblem-English for all their help in restoring The Day of Ragnarok, and also to Marcus Prince, whose support was the spur to getting it restored. Finally, it was with great pleasure that I was able to show the restored version of Ragnarok to Tamara Hinchco, 50 years after she had appeared in it.

Lez Cooke

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