By Simon Farquhar
Written by John Hopkins, directed by Herbert Wise and produced by Graeme McDonald. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.25pm on Tuesday 3 February 1976
On a good day, no television playwright could churn up emotional nausea quite as mercilessly as John Hopkins. Originally a floor manager at Granada television, in 1957 his life changed forever when he handed a half-hour television play he had written, The Break-Up, to one of the company’s rising directors, Herbert Wise, who said: ‘I was so impressed that I managed to get it produced and broadcast, albeit locally, not on the network’[i]. Hopkins went on to find a remarkably apt vehicle for his preoccupations in Z Cars; his 57 scripts were typically more interested in the victims than the crime, the investigators than the investigations. By the end of the 1960s, all his obsessions had been announced: the effects of crime, the trauma of sexual obsession and rejection, the distress and ennui of urban life, and suicide. They were explored in some alarming work: the mighty Talking to a Stranger (1966), the merciless This Story of Yours (1968), his most successful stage play (filmed as The Offence four years later), and the tortured Horror of Darkness (1965) for The Wednesday Play. The 1970s, unfortunately, were less impressive. A run of impenetrable television pieces, including Walk Into the Dark (1972), which led of a disgruntled bicker between Hopkins and the critics, an underwhelming National Theatre play, Next of Kin, and what was generally seen as a disaster of the first order, the six-part Fathers and Families (1977), which led him and its esteemed director, Christopher Morahan, away from British television (in Hopkins’ case almost permanently). Glinting amid the gloom of the decade’s failures was the one return to form, the flinty gem that is A Story to Frighten the Children (1976).
The script for this slab of high-rise horror was, tellingly, already several years old when Herbert Wise managed to persuade nervous producer Graeme McDonald to make it for Play for Today. ‘That was a hell of a film, made quite an impact’, remembered Wise. ‘It was a very straightforward script, a very good foundation on which to build something, a mood piece with this core of power’.
Making a return to the crime scenes of his Z Cars days after that decidedly duff run of abstruse plays about marital strife, A Story to Frighten the Children is indeed a joltingly direct work for Hopkins. It is a play about one extraordinary event in a painfully ordinary world. The astounding opening sequence follows young Carol McLain (Susan Littler) as she finishes an evening shift at a back-street fish-and-chip shop, and heads back to the flat she shares with her mother on a high-rise estate. In a tour de force by Wise, we follow her into the darkness, where she is stalked, trapped and assaulted by a silent stranger, her last gasps of life expressed through horrific, animalistic screams far beyond those in the television tradition. Yet when the police arrive on the scene, the residents claim to have heard nothing, and certainly no one came to help her. Detective Superintendent Langton (Jon Laurimore) isn’t surprised. ‘I knew a fella, went to help a girl when she was being attacked’, he says. ‘Pulled the other fella off all right. Stayed on, raped the girl himself’.
Early in the investigation we watch the unlikeable Chief Inspector Harris (Geoffrey Palmer) speculating on what could have happened to Carol, and it’s striking that the viewer watches him make error after error (shot through with misogyny) and yet Wise keeps his camera still and distant. There is none of the conventional grammar of the genre, no close-up of a character with an expression of doubt, no music cue to acknowledge the dramatic irony. Yet despite Harris’s unappealing manner, his preference for snap judgments and his refusal to listen to those below him, after bawling out a Sergeant for allowing the press to interview witnesses without permission, he honourably takes the rap himself when Langton arrives on the scene.
The second act of the film, chronicling the press investigation into the crime, is the most problematic section of the piece. With his camera crew, Dennis Saunders (Julian Holloway, in a refreshingly balanced portrayal), invades the estate and, unlike the police, is overrun with residents eager to share their accounts. The situation is one that has been mirrored in reality on several notable occasions, and Hopkins impressively presents it as a contrast between the detachment the residents feel from their fellow citizens and from the police, and the attraction of a moment of fame and significance that the cameras offers; the pitiful Mr Clark (John Nettleton) is an especially good depiction of this. But although television for once does a half-decent job of imitating itself, Hopkins gets stuck in the mire when he tries to drum up a supposed moral dilemma that’s created by the police demanding to see the unscreened footage as a springboard for possible new lines of enquiry. There’s a well-acted and slickly-scripted argument between the impatient Langton and the belligerent Janice Butler (Elizabeth Bell), a member of the television team, but the film doesn’t know what to do with the idea and fails to convince us that it warrants the attention devoted to it.
While never sacrificing documentary realism for directorial flair, Wise still manages some excellent moments of inventiveness throughout the film. As well as the remarkable opening sequence, one of the most sustained exercises in terror ever achieved on television, his depiction of the police reconstruction of Carol’s last walk replicates the camerawork of the original sequence, albeit in daylight, and a sequence of shots of Carol at the start viewed from different spy points around the estate is repeated just before the final arrest, this time with no one in the frame. This is a simple but surprisingly effective reminder of the dark space that now dominates the lives of her mother and boyfriend. Best of all, when a chance remark finally leads the police to the killer, Wise precedes the arrest with a silent sequence of the cameras picking out three police cars in succession approaching in the distance from different directions, gracefully closing in on their quarry. The arrest itself is calm, unremarkable, the killer’s nonchalance only becoming something darker when handcuffs click on his wrists. As he is marched away, he blames everyone but himself, ‘someone should have stopped me’ and ‘what was she doing there on her own, I mean she was asking for it weren’t she?’ As the lift door shuts, his babbling is silenced by the sound of a cell door closing. Case closed. Job done. Lives ruined. No atonement.
Wise always cast astutely, here choosing Jon Laurimore as Detective Superintendent Langton. The actor says that: ‘Working with Herbie was always a pleasure. He was celebrated for his way with actors. He had seen me at the Jermyn Street Theatre in a funny little lunchtime play where I played two parts. At one point I had to disappear into a skip as a policeman and rise out of it as the Devil. I used to turn the false moustache around while I was out of sight, but on this occasion, it slipped and rather ruined the effect!’[ii]
It was Wise’s wife, actress Fiona Walker, who suggested Laurimore for the role. ‘She found him very attractive. You and I might assume that men who look more like tailors’ dummies are considered good looking, but women have a less superficial eye. She found him interesting to look at’. As indeed does the camera. A busy television actor in a rare leading role, Laurimore gives a commanding performance, his unsmiling, haunted features making a vivid impression. The sparsely written Langton comes to life as a steadfast detective whose every mood, be it sympathetic, angry or enquiring, is controlled by a relentless professionalism.
Location filming was conducted at the Edward Woods Estate, less than a mile from BBC Television Centre and a much-used location (it was a particular favourite for The Sweeney). Despite the utopian dreams that surrounded its opening in 1962, by the mid-1970s it was a towering example of the failures of high-rise housing; like the nearby Trellick Tower, the lack of communal facilities and poor security was taking its toll on the community. There were physical problems with the buildings too, faults which can be blamed on both construction and corruption. In 1979, the Municipal Journal admitted that: ‘By the Borough’s own admission the Edward Woods Estate is monotonous to look at and its scale is oppressive’. It acknowledged the estate’s ‘air of hopelessness and decay’and its polarised population.
‘I’d filmed there on Z Cars too’, remembered Wise. ‘In those days there was less consideration of health and safety, and you’d regularly get into difficult situations. On this film, I remember a kid being an absolute bloody nuisance, and the solution was to put him in a shot, but just as we were setting it up, his father appeared, this huge bruiser. He asked what we were doing, and when I said we were making a film for the BBC, he yelled “fuck off, it’s all fucking rubbish anyway”, then he grabbed this kid and thrashed him in front of us. It was extremely disturbing’. Jon Laurimore remembers that ‘some of the local youth thought it was great fun to drop milk bottles from the balconies. So you’d be doing a scene and someone was looking up ready to warn you if something was coming your way. It was a strange part of London, full of enclaves and old schools. And it was a tough film. One night I remember travelling home from a long day of filming, getting into a cab at the station, and losing my temper at the driver. It was really the tension of this coming out. I hadn’t quite left the character behind’.
A fortnight before transmission, on 20th January 1976, Christopher Morahan, BBC Head of Plays, raised concerns about the film’s parallels with the current investigation into the murder of Susan Giles taking place in Northampton, and the news that the police were organising a reconstruction of her walk home. The handsome Lewis Grassic Gibbon trilogy Clay, Smeddum and Greenden was plucked from later in the season as a substitute but, the following day, an arrest was made in the Giles case, and since the Radio Times was late going to press that week because of rail delays, A Story to Frighten the Children was able to go ahead with its one and only broadcast on 3 February 1976, preceded by a rather mealy-mouthed announcement:
Now Play for Today: A Story to Frighten the Children, a new filmed play by award-winning writer John Hopkins. In a tense opening sequence, a young woman walking home late at night is brutally assaulted. The subsequent enquiries raise questions about public co-operation with the police and John Hopkins shows just how complex this type of investigation can be. Play for Today: A Story to Frighten the Children.
A staggering 12.57 million people were watching. ‘It wasn’t surprising really with a ball-grabbing title like that,’ says Laurimore.
‘A real old pros job, this one’, wrote W. Stephen Gilbert in Time Out, previewing a drama where the real nature of the crime was clearly ‘environmental’[iii]. At the BBC Programme Review meeting the following morning, opinions differed, some feeling underwhelmed, but Christopher Morahan defended it as ‘admirable’ and Monica Sims, Head of Children’s Television, thought it was ‘marvellous’, although she felt that the title had set up false expectations.
The BBC Audience Research Report echoed the reaction of many of the critics that, for all its merits, after the outstanding opening sequence, what followed seemed little more than an episode of Z Cars. In a sense, this is true, but the importance of the film is as much in the deliberate ordinariness of the presentation of the police investigation as the extraordinariness of the presentation of the murder. This is crime drama to its square root, but, as a corrective to typical crime drama, the stripping away of so many of the conventions left some viewers feeling that something was missing.
Crime dramas on television invariably descend from their literary antecedents, maverick, loner detectives from C. Auguste Dupin via the works of Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle, and fiction’s preference for complex plots, concrete motives and ingenious detection have kept most crime fiction agreeably reassuring and escapist. Real life offers no such comforts. Detectives make mistakes, criminals evade justice, motives are frighteningly banal. This is a story in which nothing is resolved by a crime being solved. When the journalists and the police officers have driven away, what is left is scarring, tragedy, irreparable damage. One police officer I showed the film to said it was ‘probably the most realistic depiction of a murder enquiry I’ve seen on television. You go through the motions, get very little help, are led up blind alleys, and then suddenly, usually within a few days, the penny drops and that’s it’.
By the time of the film’s production and broadcast, Hopkins had moved to Hollywood, which was to prove lucrative but not artistically satisfying. He wrote nearly 100 screenplays, only a handful of which were produced. The best perhaps is Murder by Decree (1978), which, despite being based around one of the most ludicrous Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories, manages to tell a true crime story with a remarkable degree of compassion and unease. In his final television interview for the BBC documentary Barlow, Regan, Pyall and Fancy (BBC2, 31 May 1993) which contrasted television’s roll-call of fictional police officers with their real-life counterparts, he said of his life’s work:
The desire to discover the truth of why a man lives in this hellish situation where he murders, where he lives with evil, compromises with evil… to use a less emotive word, does bad things… we search to understand, and that very search draws us more and more into this world that the policeman inhabits, and we discover a parallel in our lives.
The stories I told took me down dark roads, into areas that have not been good for me. I’m not well and have Parkinson’s, but more important than that, I think that the work that I have done over this last thirty years has taken such a toll on my ability to deal with this evil that I have written about and thought about and tried to understand. But it’s an incurable obsession, and it will wreak its havoc on you, so that in the end the only thing that you want to do is understand why one person hurts another person.
SIMON FARQUHAR is a writer and broadcaster. Works include, for the stage, Rainbow Kiss (Royal Court and 59E59 New York), Dream Me a Winter (Old Vic) and Wassail Play (Theatre Royal, Dumfries), and for BBC Radio 4 A Sympathetic Eye: The Story of Man Alive (Archive on 4) and Elevenses with Twiggy. He writes for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent and his book A Dangerous Place was shortlisted for the 2016 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. He is the author of Play for Today: The First Year 1970-71 (2021) and his personal selection of Plays for Today may be found here while his personal blog may be found here
With thanks to Jon Laurimore, Ian Greaves, Billy Smart, John Hill, John Wyver, Tom May and the BBC Written Archives, and dedicated to Herbie Wise (1924-2015) and John Hopkins (1931-1998).
[i] SF interview with Herbert Wise, 2002. The Break-Up, directed by Wise, was broadcast as part of the Granada Workshop series on 12 July 1957.
[ii] SF interview with Jon Laurimore, 2003.
[iii] W. Stephen Gilbert, Time Out, 30 January 1976.