The Ghosts of Motley Hall
John Connors on the brilliant The Ghosts of Motley Hall
A masterclass in script writing and studio acting, The Ghosts of Motley Hall has been hidden away in children’s television history behind the outwardly similar BBC series Rentaghost for far too long. It’s time for that to change though, because the ITV series is infinitely superior in every respect. Motley Hall delights in rich language and revels in its own world of ghosts who are only human after all; it pivots gracefully on tiny plots weaving them brilliantly into 25 minutes of character interaction and fun. Where Rentaghost goes for the cheap panto laugh and slapstick every time, Motley Hall will delight you with wit, energy and even drama. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been acknowledged because at the time the series was incredibly popular, being nominated for a BAFTA award and twice winning “junior TV Times” `Look In`’s readers award for favourite series. Perhaps with all the episodes now available on dvd this will change and the true worth of the show will be recognised.
Motley Hall is a sprawling country pile that’s been empty for twenty years since the last of the notorious Uproar family emigrated. Now that Sir Humphery has died, owner Arnold Gudgin is trying to sell the place but is having a bit of a problem because its haunted by five ghosts of whom he can only see one but who themselves are determined to stop anyone buying Motley and upsetting the routine they’ve gradually settled into over the centuries.
Sir George Uproar is a bellicose, self inflated Victorian General whose ignominious demise eighty years ago (falling down the stairs) is rather at odds with his tales of daring and fighting prowess. He thinks he’s in charge and the others mostly let him carry on thinking that. He often bores them with his war stories, failing to point out how many of his military campaigns went awry plus he just loves to hold meetings. Francis `Fanny` Uproar is a 18th century fop who was constantly drunk when alive, has a brain the size of a pea and is also very forgetful; in fact he often fails to understand what’s happening under his nose. Bodkin, a professional fool from the time of Queen Elizabeth the first has been here the longest and is always ready to regale his companions with corny jokes and entertain them by playing the flute. Behind his banter lies a heart of gold and his expressions of surprise, “Gloriana!” and derision, “Fishooks!” become so familiar that you find yourself about to say them in real life. The White Lady doesn’t know where she’s from and in her flowing white robes is often to be seen mournfully haunting staircases. Her status as both the only female ghost and lack of memory mean she sometimes feels left out. Matt is a stable boy from the Regency period who ironically has more brains than the rest of them put together even though he can’t read. He is the one who gets them thinking and always knows what to do though he does have a mischievous side as well. Together they have forged a friendship full of arguments, misadventures, ill advised ideas and ruses that scare off potential buyers, play havoc with long suffering Gudgin’s nerves and get them into trouble with other ghostly visitors.
The inspiration for the series came to Carpenter when he was staying at a theatrical boarding house in Liverpool and thought he’d seen a ghost. “I’d had a long drive, followed by a rehearsal and my spirits were low when I got back for a nap at Ma Kellys” he told `TV Times` in 1976, “I woke to find this alien entity at the end of the bed. A fairly conventional ghost, I must say, the long grey crinolene type, but not being a very sophisticated viewer it frightened the life out of me. Well, not quite!”. He added that he didn’t think he belonged to the “psychic percentage of the population…ghosts don’t pick on me particularly.” At the time of this apparition, his landlady denied any knowledge but Carpenter says “fifteen years later..I was told that that particular ghost had appeared to at least 500 other people”.
When he was asked to write a new show for Granada the memory came back to him. In a later interview he said; “I got to thinking, do they [ghosts] see us? And if they see us, what do they think of us? That started me off with the idea of ghosts.” Quentin Lawrence who had struck up a good working relationship with the writer when he directed Catweazle was also the producer of the new show and had given Carpenter a rather narrow directive: “He said, ‘We want to do a comedy show that all takes place in one set and it's five or six people, no more and maybe one guest every week’... and I thought, well ghosts can't get out, they're sort of stuck where they are and they can be from any period in history and jogging along together so to speak. I sort of thought if there were five ghosts in this empty house, they would want to keep it empty, they didn't want people in it at all. They were five ghosts who sometimes got on, sometimes didn't get on, but had to get on because they were stuck there. Some people could hear them and see them, and it struck me that if you could create that sort of situation, you've got bags of comedy going.” In the end Carpenter found the restrictions quite inspiring, “It is often very good for a writer to have constraints because it forces you back to using ingenuity and artistry” he said “If you are told do what you like, you come up with nothing really, nothing of any artistic value. But if you are told ‘three people in a single room, an hour and a half play’ then it's got to be in the writing.” As far as the tone of the series was concerned Carpenter said at the launch, “My ghosts don’t go for clammy hands and low moans and clanking chains….they’ve got to live together- perhaps live isn’t the right word, co-exist is probably better.”
At first modern viewers may find the style and pace rather theatrical but once you get half way through the first episode you will be hooked, both by the richness of the scripts and acting and the level of sheer enjoyment that all the episodes put across. Carpenter described the cast as “all so talented and easy to write for” and once they’d begun filming, he tapered each of the ghosts to utililise the tremendous acting range and particular performance skills of each of the cast. The scripts never pander to the easy pratfall nor the sentimental yet both the comedy and truth in them draw out performances of real depth that study the interaction between people forced into each other’s company. Like a bizarre family the ghosts co-existence is never easy; there’s always someone in a mood, someone with an idea, someone with the answers, someone messing about. As he wrote all the episodes, Carpenter was also able to keep some continuity, most amusingly in the fact that Sir George’s watch always says “ten past four” which rather than grating becomes funnier and funnier each time they use it. As one of the cast, Nicholas Le Prevost said at the series’ launch “ a certain element of accident pervades at Motley Hall. As ghosts, lets face it, we’re rank amateurs”.
Sir George is played by Freddie Jones, already an established character actor who made his tv debut in 1963 and who’s pre Motley cv reads like a list of all the key cult programmes of the 60s and 70s. In a role he seems to be perfect for, the actor is all bluster and shouting and sometimes looks as if he might explode. The way the character is written and played (“a real dyed in the wool Victorian” as Jones himself called the role) resembles a spoiled child and when he’s quelled on a couple of occasions – having his voice taken away in Phantomime and cowed by the ghost of sister Alexandria in Skeleton in the Cupboard- things seem so quiet. What a shock too to see Jones playing Sir George’s father with fleet footedness in The Christmas Spirit, an episode that allows him perhaps the series’ most subtle moment of bittersweet nostalgia. As evidenced by his comments on the recent dvd release, the actor enjoyed the series; back in the 70s he said it was “so very well written. I love its occasional implicit pathos. I loathe pathos if it is superimposed but this is comedy at its best.”
Nicholas Le Prevost manages to appear tipsy or hung over at all times as Fanny bumbles around in bafflement. Watch him and you’ll find some of the funniest physical comedy in the show such as when he draws his sword or falls over but the best Fanny moments are when he has absolutely no idea what the others are on about from one sentence to the next. Although he’s become a renowned theatre actor at the Globe and the National and also appeared in many well known series, Motley Hall was the actor’s tv debut and he said at the time: “Playing a ghost is very much like playing anyone else except that ghosts have one big problem. They’re dead. And as a ghost, one feels that every reminder of this irreversible fact is indelicate to say the least. Otherwise we’re a terribly homely lot, too preoccupied with surviving to have much time for agonising or any of that stuff.”
The White Lady is a role Sheila Steafel revels in, despite the obvious problems of having no back-story to work with; “I’ve never felt quite so unsure about a character in my life” she said at the time. Yet her experience as a comedienne is brought to bear in her range of expressions and silent knowing looks. A running theme of the show is her interaction with Gudgin; the scenes she and Peter Sallis play are a joy to watch. Her resigned haunting of the stairs, from The Last Uproar onwards add a tinge of regret to all the fun and in both Perfidia Blackart Rides Again and Godfrey of Basingstoke, she manages to make the White Lady both very funny but also sympathetic as the character never discovers her true identity. “I kept beseeching Richard Carpenter to give me a clue, “ she said after the first season was made “but he swore he was baffled himself.” After filming the first series she described her overall impression of production thus; “you keep chatting to chalk marks.”
Bodkin’s casting was a masterstroke playing heavily on Arthur English’s own history as a stand up comedian. Thus the timing of even the most obvious of jokes is spot on and amidst the hysteria English also adds parental warmth to proceedings as well as revelling in the delivery of some of the more risqué (for the intended audience) lines that Carpenter slyly places here and there. English certainly seemed to believe in the other side, when interviewed in 1976 he said, “I’m extremely psychic. Saw a ghost once in Germany- out of the corner of my eye, naturally. It was after the war. I was on guard with a tank regiment near the Dutch border when I saw this `thing` going straight across the road and flipping though the wall. We heard afterwards that the school mistresses’ son had been killed while serving in a Panzer regiment and that he was always trying to get back to the schoolhouse to see his mother.”
Sean Flanagan plays Matt with tremendous energy, tearing around the set with unashamed zeal and bursting with enthusiasm being the only ghost, initially at least, who can leave the confines of the house. It’s a vital role for the children’s audience who would have seen him as an identifiable elder brother; kudos to Carpenter for making him the only ghost who isn’t half or wholly bonkers! Flanagan proves himself the equal of his more experienced fellow cast members too; check out Double Trouble or Ghost of a Chance in which Matt is particularly well utilised. Playing the role helped in other ways too as he told `TV Times` in 1976; “I used to have terrible nightmares until I first played this ghost. I used to dream of walking downstairs in my sleep to the sitting room where all my family were watching TV. Then I’d be beckoned by a `presence` in a picture on the wall and dragged through the picture frame. Now with Motley Hall, I think of ghosts as my mates. I wouldn’t mind bumping into a real one any time.”
All together arguing, sparring, laughing or sorting something out they are riveting to watch because each takes their role with utter seriousness yet generously supports the other; true ensemble playing. A word too for Peter Sallis who appeared in most episodes; his put upon Gudgin is a great counter point to the confidence of the ghosts.
The writer and cast are not let down by the production standards either. Some of the visuals needed are fairly ambitious but Motley Hall has better FX than some television science fiction shows of the time because of the care taken and the fact that they are sparse but cleverly used. By building an alternative `set` made entirely of green material that replicated the shape of the main studio set of the Great Hall, and shot with a green screen behind it was possible for all the appearing and disappearing to happen accurately with none of the jarring jumps that you saw on other series when people vanished. On the dvd commentary, Richard Carpenter reveals that all the squares on the floor were numbered and the `green set` had corresponding numbered tiles so you don’t get any of the ragged edges that CSO could otherwise give because everything was lined up carefully. The set itself is tremendously atmospheric dominated by a large hall containing a billiard table and two staircases leading up to a balcony and was partly designed from fibreglass mouldings taken from a real building. Other regular sets include the bell tower and several lengthy corridors. Everything is painted to look like dark wood and with cobwebs abounding and low studio lighting it resembles a bona fide horror film set.
Quentin Lawrence directs as well as produces and had worked on many television shows since the 1950s including Danger Man, The Baron, The Avengers, A Family At War and Doomwatch. His cameras prowl about this playground and so the setting never becomes repetitive, with inventive shots from the balcony point of view and lots of corners to take the characters in and out of; it’s also a great environment for the actors to clamber about. By the second and especially the third season there are some plot developments allowing outside footage in the sprawling grounds; these were actually filmed at a place called Borwick Hall in Lancashire that still stands today and is now used as an activities centre with accommodation facilities. Thought was put into the incidental music too. Wilfrid Joseph used a mini Steinway, which gave it an instantly recognisable sound and each ghost also had their own little series of notes for whenever they vanished or re-appeared. Josephs also composed some other notable themes for various characters; the one for Old Gory being particularly apt.
Everyone concerned never allows the zest to flag and every so often Carpenter adds a little something; Sir George getting to go outside, different people seeing different ghosts, a little of Motley’s rich history and so on. Just occasionally, too, he allows a moment of pure emotion to appear notably in Christmas Spirit when the house’s dreamed up old Xmas that they have been witnessing vanishes, the picture suddenly looks blue and cold and the ghost’s faces tell, just for a second, of loneliness and distant memories. The series only finished because Carpenter felt he’d written all he could for the show and couldn’t think up any more scenarios that wouldn’t repeat what he’d already done. In some ways it’s a pity because watching the rapport between the cast and the fun situations is addictive but then again a weak fourth season would have been a shame too. On the dvd commentary, Freddie Jones ponders whether the show would work today and Carpenter isn’t sure; “the pace of children’s programmes has increased” he says, “They seem to have to have something happening every fifth of a second…..you can’t develop a character.”
Of all the old shows that are gradually making their way onto dvd, The Ghosts of Motley Hall is the most enjoyable I’ve yet to see and surely deserves to be known as a classic. Up the Uproars!!
The Motley Hall Mob
Freddie Jones may now be nudging 80, but shows no sign of stopping: he's a regular in Emmerdale and appeared in 2005's Casanova. He has continued to grace almost every ongoing tv series with his presence including the likes of Midsomer Murders, Casualty and the rest. He’s been in lots of films too including three for David Lynch (The Elephant Man, Dune & Wild At Heart) and has been in the business so long he’s appeared in different versions of Randal and Hopkirk: Deceased and Cold Comfort Farm. In 1969 he won the Monte Carlo Golden Nymph Award for Best Actor for his portray of Claudiius in The Caesars. His work isn’t just limited to the screen and he enjoyed critical success on the stage too, notably in The Dresser. His three sons are all in the business; two as actors, one as a director. He started his acting career relatively late after ten years as a lab technician. "I have never dictated my career," he told a local newspaper a few years back "my career has always dictated me. 90% of this business is luck; I've never known the right place to be or the right thing to do. I've always preferred to let my work speak for me rather than chasing a particular part.” Yet he always adds something special to each role however vulgar or loud it may be. Its possible his work is better appreciated in the States than here; take this one example; an American critic said of his work in The Elephant Man; "Freddie Jones is called upon to play one of the heavies in the film and he does it wonderfully well. He gives us a character who does horrible things and yet remains human. Because he does this remarkably well, we don't hate him; instead, we hate his acts.” The actor himself later commented: “I was trying so hard to convey the contradiction of the character. Remember when he throws Merrick in the cage with the monkeys and throws out all of his stuff? I was sobbing in that scene and yet it never made it to the screen. Instead, I had the terrible review from Time Magazine that said I had hammed it as a villain."
Discussing his preference for big characters Freddie once said: "I've always acted larger than life and I've always loved actors like Jack Nicholson who revolt against the naturalism trend. The truth is that I just love invention and imagining things."
Of The Ghosts of Motley Hall he said “I loved it…a delight. People still point a finger at me and say `Ghosts of Motley Hall”.
Was born in 1919 in Aldershot and started his career appearing in amateur shows but didn‘t become a professional performer until he was 30. He served in the Army during World War Two and after being demobbed worked as a painter and decorator. In 1949 he auditioned at the Windmill Theatre in London and was put under contract for several seasons as a principal comic. His catchphrases became legendary: "They're laughin' at me Mum", "Sharpen up there, the quick stuff's coming" and his famous exit line "Play the music - open the cage!".
On radio he starred in BBC's Variety Bandbox alongside comic such as Reg Dixon and Mrs Shufflewick (Rex Jameson) and he also appeared in numerous summer shows, pantomimes and clubs throughout the UK.
He turned to acting in the early 1970s across all mediums nd starred in a variety of comic cockney parts on television in series such as Comedy Playhouse and Hugh and I. He became a kids favooruite with a recurring role in horse orientated serial Follyfoot and following Motley a houslehold name thanks to his role as janiort Mr Harman in Are You Being Served. In 1987 he joined fellow veterans Irene Handl and Charlie Chester in Never Say Die, a comedy series set in an old people's home. He was made a freeman of the Aldershot borough of Rushmoor and became tabloid fodder for a while in the 80s when he became a father in his late 60s. He died in 1995.
Sheila Steafel (as amended by Sheila herself!)
Try finding out about Sheila Steafel and all sorts turns up. She was born in South Africa and crossed the ocean at the age of sixteen to ‘become a star. And didn’t.’ Ten years later things started to improve, Since then she's been seen in tv series as diverse and decades apart as Z Cars, The Kenny Everett Shows, and The Tenth Kingdom. She sang The Witch in Humperdink’s opera Hansel and Gretel, toured two one woman stage shows at home and abroad Steafel Solo and Steafel Xposed, and more recently a third Victoria Plums. In 1985/6 she performed plays that Amold Wesker wrote specially for her; Yardsale and Whatever Happened To Betty Lemon? She was married to Harry H Corbett (Steptoe’s son). On stage she played opposite Tom Courtenay in Billy Liar, Warren Mitchell in Jump and Robert Morley in How The Other Half Loves and was acclaimed for her performances as Harpo in A Day In Hollywood, A Night In The Ukraine and Mistress Quickly in the RCS's production of The Merry Wives Of Windsor. She was one of the Frost Report comedy team along with Cleese and the two Ronnies. She's done many radio programmes and plays, and spent seven years in the Radio 4 topical sketch show Week Ending. She has recently concluded a run of Victoria Plums at The New End theatre in Hampstead, described as "A beguiling evening of unique Victorian songs, ditties, poems and moving monologues. One notice read " Fascinating, funny, and sad all at once”. Which, she says, describes her perfectly!
Nicholas Le Provost
Made his tv debut with Motley Hall and has appeared in many series and films since including Shakespeare In Love, The Jewel in the Crown, Bright Young Things, The Land Girls, The Camomile Lawn and Midsomer Murders. However its on stage that he shines and in 2002 was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Theatre Award for his performance in My Fair Lady . He’s appeared in pays for both the RSC and The National Theatre and at The Globe performing Shakespeare. Recent acclaimed stage performances include Dum Dum, The Philadelphia Story and The Stafford Hotel. This year he appeared as Einstein in a tour of Insignificance and then in Sam Mendes’ version of Fuddy Meers.
Made his television debut in a 1973 episode of Z Cars and then appeared in The Likely Lads. After another Z Cars episode in 1975 he became Matt. During the run he also played Billy West, the juvenile lead in Richard Carpenter’s Look and Read story The King’s Dragon` in which he got to run around a lot and ended up being thrown in the sea! Both Richard Carpenter and Freddie Jones discuss Sean on the Motley dvd commendatory saying that the young actor was “charming…not at all precocious” and “very good”. Post Motley the young actor did yet another Z Cars in 1978 before appearing in the serial The Racing Game, based on the Dick Francis novel in 1979. After this there’s no info around; whether he left acting or did mainly theatre stuff, the only two subsequent things credited to his name on the IMDB are the 1993 UK film The Hawk and the 2000 version of David Copperfield but it may or may not be him.
Unfortunately it appears that Sean has passed away. According to an account on a website given by the person who moderated the commentaries on the dvd Richard Carpenter mentioned that Sean’s relatives had been in touch in 2004 to ask if he could get them copies of the episodes as Sean had “loved his work in it”. It is very sad news especially in the midst of watching hjs excellent performances as Matt, but there is now a permanent record of his talent and energy available for posterity.
Gloriana!! A guide to the series that even Sir George would approve of.
THE LAST UPROAR (First broadcast 25/4/76)
The last member of the Uproar family has passed on meaning that the ancestral seat of Motley Hall is in danger of being demolished. It’s left the ghosts to save the building.
Comments: Very much a pilot, the opening episode is less frenetic than it’s successors and, judging from a few subtle differences, looks like it was filmed a while earlier. The first scene suggests the house itself is alive with memories and allows a full pan around what is a terrific set, utilising a balcony and – in studio drama terms- a substantial hall dominated by a large table. The episode immediately establishes the oddities of its main characters and the trademark use of a simple plot to allow room for these to unfurl. An early example is when Bodkin and Fanny are considering which of them should investigate an apparent intruder; the former suggests Fanny goes because “I’m more scared than you are”. Fanny agrees before considering; “How do you know you’re more scared than I am?” “Well if I wasn’t,” replies Bodkin, “I’d be going to look wouldn’t I?” Its little gems like this that allow a fast introduction to each of them; the White Lady is first seen stalking the stairs moaning and is the most traditional image of a ghost, Sir George’s desire to have his portrait hung up marks out his narcissistic tendencies from the off and the episode plays up Bodkin’s rather limp jokes too. Matt, the stable boy, after a start suggesting he’ll be mischievous and cheeky, soon becomes the sensible one, used well to involve the viewers and provide a counterpoint to all the silliness; after his introduction scrawling on Sir George’s portrait, its telling that Matt hardly ever does anything silly again in the whole series and is always ready with a practical solution which is what probably helped win the series popularity with the younger audience. There’s also the introduction of Gudgin the estate agent who will be a recurring, if put upon character, played by Peter Sallis. Surprisingly from a 2005 viewpoint, the FX are top notch with very little CSO wobble; in fact rather better than those in other more sci-fi series of the era.
- This is Matt’s first time in the house; he only enters “to look at it before it got pulled down”. None of the others can leave the house. Matt states he’s been all round the grounds but never beyond the gate.
- Causes of death mentioned for the ghosts; both Bodkin and Matt succumbed to a cold, Sir George fell down the stairs.
- Each ghost has their own way of `disappearing` though this alters a bit during the series. Mostly they seem to materialise the wrong way round too!!
- Bodkin and The White Lady have been in the house “forever”.
- The last Uproar who has just died is named as Sir Humphery, who has been in India for twenty years hence the place’s decrepitude.
- Matt has a double headed lucky penny.
OLD GORY (First broadcast 2/05/76)
The arrival of a ghost hunter eager to photograph the spooks coincides with the regular re-appearance of the ghost everyone can see, Old Gory, who carries his decapitated head around and never stops moaning about it.
Comments; One of the best season one scripts sees the two plots dancing around each other brilliantly and despite expectations Jack the ghost hunter and Old Gory never meet. The ghost’s exasperation with Old Gory (a superbly weary sounding Reg Lye) contrasts with Jack’s enthusiasm for the hunt. By the time Gory’s head and body have been separated, the hide and seek that follows is superior slapstick. There’s some cool lines too; at one point Bodkin says he could strangle Gory which elicits the White Lady’s retort; “How?”. Elsewhere Gory is described as looking like he’s won himself at a fair. Yes, someone does say “Keep calm, don’t lose your head” but in this context you find yourself laughing. The FX are not bad either; headless ghosts are never easy but they pull it off here well enough.
- Old Gory turns up every five years. He was killed in battle before Motley was built and every living person can see him.
- The White Lady mentions the screaming skulls of Hollow Manor, which we never see but sound great.
BOX OF TRICKS (First broadcast 9/05/76)
The ghosts discover television while thieves prowl about the Hall.
Comments; Carpenter makes the most of the idea of these historical characters never having seen TV before and who consequently think the people on screen are talking directly to them. As they sit transfixed by racing, a cookery programme comes on prompting Sir George to inform the host she’s blocking their view of the horses! Reminiscent of some of Carpenter’s work in Catweazle, this culture clash is bolstered by some marvellously timed scenes involving a policeman who can see Sir George (“I’m an emanation” Sir George insists but the policemen counters, “You said you were a General”) and two thieves who can’t but think the PC is mad. When all four have a `conversation`, the results are as hilarious as any sitcom.
- The ghosts always play bridge in the Bell Tower on Mondays. Sir George seems to have taught them various games only to find himself on the losing side.
- There is a reference to Sir Peveral Uproar’s lost treasure, which will form the plot for the season 2 episode Sir Peveral’s Hoard. Sir George says he dug up the croquet lawn when he was alive looking for it (the treasure that is, not the season 2 episode!)
- There is a secret passage in the wall of the Great Hall that only Bodkin – and now Matt – know about.
BAD LORD WILLIAM AND THE BRITISH BANANA COMPANY(First broadcast 16/05/76)
A representative from a prospective buyer of Motley accidentally releases the ghost of Bad Lord William who tries to take over the others; its up to Fanny to beat him a duel.
Comments; A slightly weaker episode largely due to Frank Barrie rather overdoing it as William though there’s still fun to be had. Given his age, Arthur English manages a sterling duel with the villain that plays up his mischievous side, though the fact that everyone’s a ghost means they can’t be harmed really. Still it’s worth it to see Nicholas Le Provost’s totally sloshed Fanny who seems even more bewildered than usual. Bodkin surprises everyone with his sword fighting prowess; “I didn’t know you had it in you” observes the White Lady. “I nearly had it in me several times” he bemoans.
- Another ghost mentioned in passing is the Mad Monk of Windham Manor.
- Fanny has fought twelve duels before the one he’s supposed to fight here.
- Gudgin once saw The White Lady in the cellar.
PERFIDIA BLACKART RIDES AGAIN (First broadcast 23/05/76)
The ghosts realise it’s the 400th anniversary of the hall and Bodkin writes a masque to celebrate – but which ghost has torn out pages from the book he’s using – and why?
Comments; “There’s no time like the present,” says Sir George as the ghosts debate what to do to celebrate four centuries of Motley. “That’s a matter of opinion, suggests The White Lady for what we soon learn is that she could be Perfidia Blackart, a notorious murderess. Intriguing us from the start with the prospect of finding out some more Motley history, this episode sets up a little whodunit, solves it then tackles the aftermath. The masque rehearsals are hilarious as Fanny becomes utterly confused over his stage directions. Again it is Matt who thinks up how to catch the person who’s taken the missing pages and when the White Lady is found out and tells them why, its surprising to see them taking sides. There are some priceless moments for example when the White Lady shows the missing page to Fanny saying “I opened the book and discovered who I was,” he takes the page, looks and says “…the old fireplace!” Sheila Steafel’s range of expressions never ceases to amuse; it’s worth watching her even when she’s in the background. The best scene is when the other four are discussing what to do about the White Lady and are all whispering so she doesn’t hear; one by one they crawl onto and across the table. Silly, but it works.
- The book in question is Sir Cheverel Uproar’s history of Motley.
- It is stated that the Hall was built in 1577; four hundred years ago. The ghosts debate what year it is but it seems even Richard Carpenter wasn’t sure as this was shown in 1976!
- There’s a reference to the planned visit of Queen Elizabeth the first to Motley, an event which will be central to the season 3 episode Ghost Writer
- Matt can’t read.
- Perfidia Blackart worked for Cromwell and poisoned all of Sir Ebenezer Uproar’s family except son Henry who switched the poisoned cup and she drank it herself.
DOUBLE TROUBLE (First broadcast 30/05/76)
The ghosts try to get in touch with the other side; (“we are the other side” quips one of them) to contact Sir George’s old ADC General Bunhaven but the process unleashes an evil doppleganger of Matt.
Comments; Richard Carpenter must have had fun writing this one as evil Matt spreads discord amongst the other ghosts by suggesting things they’ve said about each other. This includes Sir George being described wonderfully as a “gravy eyed gravel grounder”, the White Lady is an “old cat” while Fanny is informed he has four heads – “fathead, blockhead, thickhead and bonehead!” The kids must have loved it and Sean Flanagan has a whale of a time making the two Matt’s distinguishable and showing considerable flair switching quickly from one emotion to the next. The others get to puff up and shout a lot and there’s even some surprisingly funny slapstick when the White Lady whallops Fanny over the head with a large book! It’s all superb stuff ever so slightly let down by the need to finish so the doppleganger just implodes. With this much enjoyable chaos, a two parter would have been even better.
- Matt’s lucky penny is used in a ruse to uncover which of the two Matt’s is the real one.
- A doppleganger ghost is one in which the bad part has been separated from the good because “everyone has bad in them, even ghosts”.
THE POGMORE EXPERIMENT (First broadcast 6/06/76)
Gudgin brings Professor Pogmore and his sonic disrupter machine into Motley, which threatens the existence of the ghosts.
Comments; Cast against type Neil McCarthy plays the twitchy eccentric Pogmore, whose machine turns out be more dangerous than its inventor would suggest. There’s some strong interaction between Gudgin and the White Lady playing on the way the ghosts have helped him earlier in the season and great reactions as the ghosts watch Pogmore explaining that they don’t really exist. Rather than present some sci-fi prop, the machine looks plausible and once it starts to erase the ghosts things look a tad more serious. There’s plenty of silliness too of course, such as someone declaring the place “safe as houses” a second before a pile of rubble falls onto the table and Bodkin’s deflation of the White Lady’s claim that “men have fought over me”, “Who was it?” he replies, “Burke and Hare”. The ending is a suitably uplifting finale to the season as the effects of the machine turn out to be temporary and they finish on a song.
- Pogmore’s machine is described as a “high powered oscillator” though he has christened it a `de-spooker`. It uses ultra sonic waves to wipe out the ghosts.
- Gudgin confesses to the White Lady that the ghosts’ presence has made it impossible to sell the house, which is why he brought Pogmore inside.
- Just before they disappear after being caught in the machine’s waves, the White Lady is about to tell Fanny a secret but they vanish before she can say it. And we never find out what it was in any subsequent episode!
THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT (First broadcast 24/12/76)
The ghosts are transported back to see a real Christmas only for the festivities to be disrupted by an elemental spirit.
Comments; One of the most accomplished special Xmas episodes ever done in the 70s, this captures the mixed emotions that the festive season can bring perfectly and is warmly remembered by those who saw its original broadcast. We see the ghosts putting up stockings but ruefully admitting they never get any presents (“I found a moth once” says a hopeful Fanny). Bodkin and Matt both protest when the White Lady announces she’s giving Xmas a miss this year. “The festive season, Yule!” enthuses Bodkin. “You’ll what?” questions Fanny. Then as Sir George wishes they could see the place as it was, the house transports them back and the room is filled with furniture, decorations, candles and carpets. Visually it’s a wonderful transformation and puts you in the Xmas mood. The ghosts work out its 1848- Sir George was 10 at the time and we get to meet his father Sir Henry which allows Freddie Jones to play a dual role. Sir Henry is far gentler and even romantic, which Jones puts over extremely well. Then everyone starts arguing. Director Quentin Lawrence excels himself with this episode, first in the transformation, then shooting one sequence through the flames in the fireplace and then by building the tension by having continuous droning music in the background and cutting back to the Yule log on the fire, which turns out to be the source of the problem. The elemental causing the trouble is then exposed and disappears for a while which allows the scene that people still recall. While the other ghosts are persuading old Gudgin (an amusingly doddery Peter Sallis) to help them, Sir George meets himself as a boy. It would be easy to overdo such a moment but it is written and performed exquisitely encapsulating all the loneliness of the ghost and the hopefulness of the child. The ghosts then persuade the spirit that it is actually free now so it can escape. Yet just as everything comes together, the scene fades and the ghosts are back in their usual environment, which thanks to some very blue lighting looks colder than ever. This is 23 minutes of perfection; if you only ever watch one episode of this show, this is the one to see.
- As well as young Sir George we also glimpse his younger sister Alexandria who will show up in her rather more fearsome adult form in season 3’s Skeleton in the Cupboard
- The elemental spirit is that of a boy killed near a tree and subsequently trapped in it until it is felled and one branch used as the Yule log.
SIR PEVERIL’S HOARD (First broadcast 2/01/77)
When the ghosts discover Motley’s roof needs expensive repairs they set about trying to locate the missing treasure hoarded away by notorious miser Sir Peveril Uproar.
Comments; This episode sees the ghosts trying to help save the hall as they think Gudgin won’t be able to stump up the money for fixing the roof. At one of their regular meetings Sir George spells out how things could end up if the roof falls in; “grass will start growing…” Matt asks if they can do anything, “mow it?” suggests Fanny! Rather than see Sir Peveril, he is represented by expressive moaning noises which works far more amusingly than had he been able to talk. The ghosts go to look in the cellar for clues leading to an amusing search; Bodkin finds a birdcage belonging to Lady Agatha’s parrot; “drank stout” says Sir George. “Did it?” replies Bodkin. “Fool!” declares Sir George, “Lady Agatha. Parrot drank gin!” When they find a bust of Sir P a clue seems to suggest he only told his cat where the fortune was hidden and when he gets frustrated that Matt is looking in the wrong places, Sir George suddenly finds himself outside too! Clearly the intention was for more outside location shooting this time as they have quite a wander but find the old miser tricked them and its interesting to see the development; plus Freddie Jones really does look like he’ll explode. The hoard turns out to be in the bust but they don’t need it as Gudgin has insurance, something they’d forgotten about. It’s an episode full of new locations and some well performed deductions and you’ll find yourself trying to guess were the treasure is hidden as you watch.
- In the cellar Sir George finds the model fort, Motley Castle, referred to in The Christmas Spirit as the present he received in 1848.
- Sir Peveril Uproar used to sit and count his money all day.
- This is the first occasion Sir George has left the house since the day he died
- When the ghosts realise they won’t need the treasure they hide it in a secret passage
WHERE ARE YOU, WHITE FEATHER? (First broadcast 9/01/77)
Bodkin ends up becoming spirit guide for the powerful medium EmilyTiffin.
Comments; After a sluggish start this proves to be a dynamic episode in which a powerful medium seems to be a match for our heroes. Valerie Lush is great as Emily who knows as soon as she enters Motley they are being watched by several ghosts. Not only can she see them but she can also stop them vanishing, but it is her spirit guide, a Red Indian called White Feather who tricks Bodkin into standing in for him leading to the latter being spirited away by the medium. Then it is up to the White Lady to persuade Gudgin to get her to come back. Peter Sallis conveys Gudgins’ jitters so well while the running joke involving the word “How` manages to remain funny. There’s another great meeting as the others try to work out how to get Bodkin back and when they discover noise affects Emily’s psychic power, we’re rewarded with a class scene of Matt and Fanny banging pots, Sir George blowing a bugle and in the tower the White Lady ringing the bells, while Bodkin is dragged back and forth by both sides. “Whose side are you on?” Sir George questions Fanny at one point, as they read copies of Emily’s paper. “The other side according to this” comes the reply.
- Emily Tiffin edits `Astral Times` and is one of the country’s leading sensitives.
- Bodkin leaves Motley altogether for three weeks while in Emily’s employ.
GODFREY OF BASINGSTOKE (First broadcast 16/0/77)
When Sir Godfrey of Basingstoke is rescued from a well he thinks the White Lady is his wife, Mathilda.
Comments: A bit of a showcase from Sheila Steafel who manages to work in a host of comical expressions – and a hilarious feint when told who she might be- while guest star Ian Cuthbertson is perfectly cast as the pompous knight who remembers every detail of his old campaigns but can’t recall a thing about his wife. His anecdotes are well written; “Stuck down a well in a suit of armour, “ he says, “you feel a bit of a fool!” Sean Flanagan also gets a lot to do, though you do worry about how they protected his apparently bare feet as Matt traipses through bracken, leaves and goodness knows what else outside. The episode opens with the White Lady sulking because she’s tired of being taken for granted; “I’m not a ghost” she wails as her uncomfortable colleagues look on, “I’m just a description”. Her attitude really starts to annoy Sir George, but when Matt keeps seeing her outside – or at least a white robed lady with a hood hiding her face – and then unwittingly awakes Sir Godfrey, the fun begins. It is Matt, again, who solves the puzzle; the lady he’s seen outside is the real Matilda and she’s reunited with her errant husband. At the end, the White Lady concludes “not knowing who I was means I don’t have to be anybody I don’t want to be if I don’t want to.” Fanny will be puzzling that one out for months!
- Sir Godfrey ended up in the well after leaning over to drink some water and falling in. Despite several ambitious plans to rescue him, his comrades just decided to leave him there!
GHOST OF A CHANCE (First broadcast 23/01/77)
Gudgin gets his head stuck in the balcony’s banister – and its up to Matt to rescue him.
Comments: It’s amazing how such a simple idea, based on how appearances can be deceptive, can yield such good results. Peter Sallis’ perpetually nervy Gudgin is always an asset and here he’s in top form livening up what starts as a dull day for the ghosts. “This is no time for levity” quips Sir George as the White Lady floats up to try and reassure the hapless man. Matt, meanwhile, has to somehow cajole some of Gudgin’s relatives who are camping in the grounds, into the house, which he eventually does by donning a sheet to look like the traditional ghost. Its all done at a great pace, Flanagan putting in an expressive and often wordless performance as Matt’s mischievous side is give full reign, while there’s plenty of banter inside the house. “The ugly one spoke!” Gudgin declares prompting Sir George to suggest “He still can’t see us too clearly”. There is a great effect showing how half seen ghosts might look; very impressive. A great gag too, when Gudgin’s nephew is lured into the house and thinks his uncle is a ghost and runs out screaming. If the effect is slightly dampened by the script’s constant reference to warm weather- when it’s clearly cold and damp – that doesn’t spoil matters too much.
- We find out Gudgin’s first name is Arnold.
- Gudgin is able to see all the ghosts to some extent, presumably because of his panic.
HORRORSCOPE (First broadcast 30/01/77)
When Gudgin finally sells Motley to a reclusive millionaire, Sir George sets about ensuring the new tenant does not want to stay.
Comments: Starting with the ghosts’s shock that their meeting table is missing (at one point they all stand in the same positions in the hall) this is a less humorous episode, which at times seems a bit out of place. Brian Wilde’s aloof Stamford Hives is not especially sympathetic and the fact that he’s being tricked by his assistants, using his interest in horoscopes to dictate what he does with his business, is a tad convoluted for this show. The resolution is clever but rather dry. Nevertheless there are things to be savoured, notably a montage of Sir George trying to disrupt Hives’s life without much affect, the other ghosts’ annoyance that at first Hives can only see Fanny and the White Lady’s reaction to a telephone; these are very funny moments in an otherwise more thoughtful script.
- The secret passage is used to hide the Hamilton’s stuff.
- At the end the ghosts convince Hives to go on holiday and he decides to give Motley back to Gudgin.
PHANTOMIME (First broadcast 26/12/77)
The ghosts have to deal with a troublesome genie as well as some living visitors over Xmas.
Comments: Something of an amalgam of familiar pantomime archetypes, this episode gains much from it’s extended length and excruciatingly enjoyable puns. Amidst some very convincing false snow, Matt (wearing a less convincing wig) allows three visitors into the hall after being miffed when the others decided not to have Xmas. “You do know `Good King Wenclesnes`” Sir George asks Fanny to which the latter replies; “Not to speak to..” The strangers are a girl called Elly, who can see all the ghosts, and her two Aunts Ethel and Edith who certainly can’t and treat their niece “like a scullery maid” as Matt puts it. The two young ones hit it off; “Who are you the ghost of?” asks Elly, “Me of course” says Matt and if there’s a hint of romance, Carpenter doesn’t pursue it. Meanwhile Fanny has opened a bottle hopefully only to be greeted by a ten foot tall djinn called Saladin who is now his master; speaking in a mixture of cod Arabic and Cockney patois, Alfred Marks is well cast. It doesn’t take long for Sir George to decide he should be in charge. Its debatable how much the watching 70s kids knew about gin but the writer leaves no pun unspoken; “Looks like a large djinn to me” quips Bodkin when he first sees the giant. “I’d prefer a small djinn” offers the White Lady when they get Saladin to shrink and of course when Sir George takes control, Fanny wails, “”You’ve taken my djinn”. Its very corny but probably funnier now than it seemed then especially as Carpenter even inserts a layer of what we would now probably call post modernism into matters; at one point the White Lady suggests “it happens quite a lot in these stories”, Elly calls Matt `Buttons` and, best of all, when the ghosts request `the treasures of the East`, Saladin returns with an oil can. There are some classic Motley double scenes where the ghosts are having one conversation and Elly is caught between them and her aunts. When Sir George is rendered speechless and stripped to his long johns by Saladin as punishment, Freddie Jones proves his miming skills are as good as his acting ones; it does seem odd for his thundering voice to be absent for a whole third of the episode though. In the end, the plot wraps up when the ghosts trick Saladin into a thermos flask inside which is hidden an airline ticket from Elly’s Baghdad based father whose letters the evil aunts have been burning. What’s great is the way each character is intricately involved and the interaction between Elly and the ghosts is so well portrayed.
- There’s a special snow laded title sequence to enjoy.
- The ghosts refer to `last Xmas` and an ill- tempered game of monopoly suggesting perhaps that The Christmas Spirit shown a year earlier didn’t last too long!
Gudgin is absent at his sisters in Bradford.
FAMILY TREE (First broadcast 29/01/78)
An American couple, Darlene and Marlon Dewey, intent on tracing their connection to the Uproar family decide to ask the ghosts, who are rather preoccupied with the re-appearance of Old Gory.
Comments: Early evidence that Richard Carpenter was beginning to run short of ideas for the show lies in this slightly uneven episode which recycles, to some extent, earlier attempts by the living to contact the ghosts, includes another Ouija board scene and brings back Old Gory. Still the headless one is always a laugh, Reg Lye playing him with such deadpan lethargy that you can’t help but warm to him; “for all the notice anyone takes of me” he moans, “I might just as well be alive.” The ghosts have a lot of fun with the American’s attempts to contact them (Fanny’s response to the question “Is there anybody there?” is “Where?”) and when Darlene produces a `spirit-a-phone` the funniest bit of the episode follows as Sir George tries to answer back. When the ghosts decide to get Old Gory to help them (again, an idea from Matt) the result is a quick conclusion- Darlene runs away!
- The episode paints in another area of Uproar history; it was Sir George’s younger sister Clara who eloped with American Jim Bulstrode.
- The `spirit-a-phone` used by Darlene comes recommended by Emily Tiffin, who appeared in the season 2 episode Where Are You, White Feather?
- Old Gory explains that he stopped wearing his head on his shoulders, which was suggested by Matt in the second season 1 episode, because it kept falling off!
- The full length title sequence seems to have been restored for season 3 after a shortened version was used in the second season.
GHOST WRITER (First broadcast 5/02/78)
A film crew who are shooting a documentary about Sir Richard Uproar invades Motley, but the ghosts notice inconsistencies in the tale being told by loathsome presenter St John Desmond.
Comments: There’s a lot packed into this episode, which tells another Uproar family story, finally gets Gudgin fully on the ghosts’ side and includes some fun dual roles. Nicholas le Prevost is in fine form as the arrogant and self - opinionated Desmond, while Arthur English gets to literally camp it up as an actor playing a stylised version of Bodkin (dubbed Bodikins) who is alleged to have attempted to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. Of course the real Bodkin watching from the sidelines knows he died before the royal visit took place. Scene is thus set for the ghosts to start to disrupt the filming with wonderfully childish abandon while Gudgin scours graveyards looking for Bodkin’s tombstone. These latter excursions do slow the pace a bit but the delight with which the ghosts work together to drop a tray, cover a camera lens or turn a light is excellent. Plus Matt, who never gets funny lines, gets a funny line when he thinks the “”shooting for a week” is going to be a massacre.
- The visit of Queen Elizabeth to Motley was the subject of the play Bodkin wrote in season 1’s Perfidia Blackhart Rides Again. In St.John Desmond’s version Sir Richard cajoled Bodkin into planning to assassinate the Queen only to give him away at the last minute, thus gaining a knighthood. Gudgin finds Bodkin’s grave proving he actually died on April 1st 1601, before the Queen’s visit thus showing Desmond’s history is inaccurate. Before being exposed, Desmond pours scorn on Sir Cheverall Uproar’s history.
- There are three dual roles; Nicholas le Prevost also plays Desmond, Arthur English plays `Bodikins` and Freddie Jones plays `Sir Richard`.
SKELETON IN THE CUPBOARD PART 1 (First broadcast 12/02/78)
Frustrated by Sir George’s continued efforts at scaring off potential buyers for the Hall the others resort to resurrecting the ghost of his sister, the fearsome Alexandria.
Comments; You know those football chants `There’s only one….` well if you watch old 70s telly you’ll know that there’s only one Joan Sanderson. With her stern look and foghorn yet crystal clear voice, she is regularly trotted out as a battleaxe of the first order, hence is perfect casting for Alexandria. Yet prior to her resurrection Carpenter makes us feel almost sorry for her, as she seems to have been killed by Sir George in a bizarre croquet accident. So English you can almost see the Union Jack, the episode lurches from croquet lawns and talk of women’s institutes, to family spats and fall- outs and every line is a delight. Freddie Jones is at his shouty best as he defends his actions and a duel with Fanny is played for all the melodramatic laughter they can get (especially making sure Fanny is walking in the right direction!) until they – and suddenly the viewer- realises they can’t possibly harm each other as they’re dead! Peter Sallis is also on hand to be scared and worried as he has to drop the price to try and find a buyer while Sean Flanagan has a lively time of it messing about on the “croakey” lawn. Yet it is Sanderson’s appearance looking like Queen Victoria- “you killed me” are her first words to Sir George- that sticks most in the mind and she provides the series’ only cliffhanger by yelling “they’ll rue the day they raised me”.
- Stamford Hives from season 2’s Horoscope is mentioned; he is now running a coffee bar on Tonga.
- Sir John Uproar built the Long Gallery.
- Sir George is seen playing with his old fort, Motley Castle, first mentioned in The Christmas Sprit and found again in the cellar in Sir Peveril’s Hoard.
SKELETON IN THE CUPBOARD PART 2 (First broadcast 19/02/78)
The ghosts try to find a chink in Alexandria’s armour as she makes life at Motley intolerable.
Comments; Poor Sir George, forced to miss bridge on Thursdays while his companions mull over how they can see off his older sister who has made life very miserable. When bridge itself is interrupted by Alexandria confiscating the cards, the ghosts decided they have to act. The key turns out to be in the way Alexandria died and the only way to get rid of her is for her to play- and beat- Sir George at croquet. Matt works this out and passes the message to Fanny to relay; only problem is that Fanny gets the messages the wrong way round so Sir George goes into battle thinking he has to win! Freddie Jones is on blistering form again both as the cuckolded brother and when trying to muster enough anger to get himself outside. Quentin Lawrence shoots the croquet scenes with style and there’s appropriate music to give the impression of stateliness. The side story, in which a horror writer shows an interest in Motley but leaves because it isn’t spooky enough adds a neat end gag rounding off a successful excursion into lengthier material.
- Alexandria was killed when Sir George, in a temper because he was losing at croquet for the first time, hit the ball too hard and it struck his sister.
- This is Sir George’s second time outside after Sir Peveril’s Hoard and he has to get into quite a foul state to achieve it.
PARTY PIECE (First broadcast 26/02/78)
When a piano is left in the hall, the ghosts’ attempts to hold a musical evening are almost derailed by the instrument’s owner, Ludwig Stumpf. However a bit of flattery and a promise they really want to hear him play, allows them to carry on.
Comments; This is a truly magical episode, something of a gift to the cast who are able to show off considerable theatrical skills in what is essentially a revue. Stumpt (John Ringham, pitching just right) bemoans his demise in the middle of playing. “they shot me in the presto” he laments, “Was it quick?” asks the White Lady, “No quicker than usual!” he replies. Once he has been convinced that they can use the piano, the frolics begin. It starts with `Bodkin’s Ballad` in which Arthur English’s delivery conjures up `Good Old Days` era entertainment and shows just what a great live comic he had been earlier in his career. Really though this is Sheila Steafel’s episode; miming the piano behind both Bodkin and Sir George’s contributions she pulls an array of artistic faces. Her own song is like a whirlwind, as she sings `Can Nobody Tell Me Name?`, she flits from here to there, completing one verse dashing to and fro along the balcony- in one very funny moment she even materialises elsewhere entirely ! “I’m moaning and sighing and howling and crying” she wails, “what else can a White Lady do?” The others find this kind of sad, but it is brilliantly mad and funny and, interestingly enough, Kate Bush arrived on the music scene wearing a white gown, long hair and dancing about just a few weeks after this was shown. – I wonder if she was watching? There is then a knowing wink at the viewers when Stumpf is told he can play `after the interval` whereupon the advert bumper appears. After the break Sir George announces he will recite a monologue entitled `The Opening of the Suez Canal`, “Is it very long?” he’s asked and of course he says “97 Miles to be exact!”. As he trundles on the others, even Stumpf, drift into translucent slumber. The monologue shows just how intricate Richard Carpenter’s writing and the cast’s involvement were; you really get a sense of what it might have been liked at the Suez canal’s opening. Fanny’s song relates the tale of `the unfortunate Miss Bailey` though he often has to be prompted by the others after forgetting words mid line or even the name of Miss Bailey! Finally, they all join together for a ditty about death or rather avoiding the mention of it; the tune incorporates a few notes of the series’ theme. This would have been a better final episode really, as it sparkles with the assembled talent and is often extremely funny.
- Ludwig Stumpf’s demise occurred at Tombstone when he was on his first American tour.
- Presumably Richard Carpenter and Wilfrid Josephs wrote the songs in this episode; does anyone know?
NARCISSUS BULLOCK’S BELL (First broadcast 5/03/78)
Gudgin finds an old bell but ringing it banishes the ghosts two miles from Motley Hall. Can they get back and if they do can they get back inside?
Comments; Its odd that this final episode is atypical of the series, most of it taking place outdoors in bright sunshine and involving a denser plot than usual. There are fewer quips and a lot of to-ing and fro-ing while the character of Narcissus suggests that Carpenter already had his mind firmly set on subsequent series Dick Turpin . Still, it’s nice to see them getting some sun and it’s altogether possible that nobody knew it was the last one at the time. What is pleasing too, is the way that Gudgin and The White Lady seem closer to becoming sort-of friends, Sir George is back in charge yet in a less overbearing way and at the end Fanny makes the only right decision we ever see him make helping defeat his old friend Bullock’s ambitions to keep the others out of the Hall for good. Somehow it doesn’t quite click- and it would have been good to have seen the ghosts back at their table at the end – but a weaker episode of this series is still enjoyable to watch.
- The meeting at the start is about dealing with a banshee in the chimney.
- The titular bell drives ghosts away though its not explained how Bullock came to own it.
- Fanny gives us a reprise of his `Miss Bailey` song while strolling through the woods.
- Fanny and highway man’s ghost Bullock are old friends; though the latter says he robbed the former twice!
LORDS OF THE HALL
In the 1977 novelisation of the first series, Richard Carpenter included a family tree of the Uproars. He states that the house was begun in 1596 and the main structure completed in 1600, just before Bodkin left the Globe Theatre to take up his position of Fool to Sir Richard Uproar.
Sir Richard 1550- 1620 (Bodkin was his Fool, his dates are 1540- 1601)
Sir John 1580 – 1630 (murdered by Bad Lord William)
Sir Ebenezer 1583- 1643 (assumed title after Bad Lord William had been poisoned. Poisoned by Lady Perfidia Blackart)
Sir Henry 1632 – 1680 (accidentally poisoned Lady Blackart)
Sir Guy 1662- 1720
Sir Francis (or Fanny; killed in a duel)
Sir Peregrine 1728 – 1783 (Matt lived during this period, from 1747-62)
Sir Peveril 1764- 1823 (the miser)
Sir Arthur 1765 – 1840
Sir Henry 1810- 1870
Sir George 1838 – 1896 (fell down stairs and broke his neck)
Sir Harry 1870- 1910
Sir Rupert 1895- 1915
Sir Frederick 1898 – 1959
Sir Humphrey 1926- 1976 (the last Uproar)
AND FINALLY….the lyrics to the ensemble song from Party Piece.
In ghostly conversations, there’s a word we all disdain,
It’s simply never mentioned, the reason’s very plain,
It’s a very touchy subject for phantoms such as we,
And so you know the word we mean, it’s spelt d..e..a..d
Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t let it be said,
It’s a word to avoid when you know that you’re…
A henpecked young marksman from London,
Thought an archery contest he’d enter,
His wife’s loud complaining interfered with his aiming,
And he shot his sour missus dead centre.
Sir George’s verse:
Two foolhardy Fakirs from Delhi,
Once decided they’d try to compete,
After swallowing fire, they began to expire
The umpire declared a dead heat.
The White Lady’s verse:
By a grave lay two amorous worms,
Their attachment was one of the firmest,
Said one, we’re delaying, enough of this playing,
Lets go and make love in dead Ernest.
A hangman was testing his noose,
While preparing a highway man’s fate,
But the trap door gave way and the hangman they say
Very quickly became a dead weight.
Lord Neville and Greville were traitors,
Lord Neville was taller than Greville,
They were tied back to back and stretched on the rack
Till both of those lords was dead level.
Repeat chorus to end
By SHEILA STEAFEL aka The White Lady
Although THE GHOSTS OF MOTLEY HALL was made as a children’s programme it seemed to attract appreciative viewers of all ages. The reason may have been that the writer Richard Carpenter (affectionately known as ‘Kip’) and director Quentin Lawrence (ditto ‘Q’) as well as we in the cast respected our audience and never ‘played down’ to the younger element as many other TV programmes are inclined to do. We never thought of the series as anything but serious (if somewhat eccentric) drama. Part of the merit of the programme was indeed in the casting. It would be impossible to think of anyone but that remarkably fine actor Freddie Jones playing Sir George Uproar, and who but Nicholas le Prevost could bring ‘Fanny’… I nearly said so joyously ‘to life’? And Arthur English of course WAS Bodkin. I still wonder at my luck at being cast as The White Lady, a part to die for…. which I suppose in a way did!. We four were the ghosts who couldn’t leave the Hall, but Matt (played by young Sean Flanagan) could, which meant the story lines weren’t altogether confined to the interior set. The estimable Peter Sallis as the nervous yet determined janitor completed the team of regulars, while the guest actors, different ones in each episode, contributed hugely to the quality of the series.
The set itself was ‘permanent’, which meant that while the series was being recorded a studio was set aside for our use only, and with familiarity Motley Hall with its large sombre, dusty hall and cobwebbed staircases became ‘home’. We had enormous fun making the programmes, but what was even more rewarding was that we became a genuine team… perhaps a family, and this trust and intimacy shows on the screen. We would give lines away to each other, as well as crucial moments: Wouldn’t it be better if YOU said that, or did that? And we were grateful for suggestions from one another, and even criticism. I remember Freddie taking me aside after one of the White Lady’s excessive bouts of hysteria and telling me (as gently as he could) that there was no need to be quite so realistic, as screwing up my face ‘didn’t make The White Lady as attractive as she should always be. Point taken!
In those days before digital techniques etc made special effects commonplace, visual trickery on screen was new and challenging. I’m not technically minded, but it seems in order to obtain these illusions they took the colour green out of the spectrum. (What do you mean WHICH spectrum? THE spectrum. OK?) This meant that anything green wouldn’t be acknowledged by the camera. With me so far? Good. . When we had to appear or disappear, we would be shot against a plain green background, standing on a green cloth, with all the shadows eliminated. Then one camera would cover the scene let’s say in the main hall where you were due to appear, while another would cover you in the green area The two pictures were aligned for perspective and your position in the scene, the director Q would bring up the picture of the hall sans ghost, and then on cue fade the camera up on you… and you would materialize… with some difficulty. Kip and Q decided we should each of us choose our own method of disappearing, but specified that as a ghostly function it was haphazard and took a lot of effort, which was why we all staggered unsteadily when we arrived anywhere, particularly Fanny, who always managed to land in the most unlikely, and probably most painful of places. I decided that pinching the bridge of my nose as though expecting a huge sneeze would preface the energy needed to fade in or out.
The White Lady was one of the few opportunities I was given to play ‘a heroine’. (Well, you know what I mean!) I loved wearing those flowing white robes, though from time to time they caught me out and tripped me up… quite noticeably in one of the episodes.... and no, you’ll have to find it yourselves. The wig, though not exactly ‘flowing’, added to the femininity of the character, as did the long fingernails, although they became the bane of my life on and off screen. They had to be glued on each morning at the studio, and were inclined to come off at the slightest pressure, so I had to become adept at avoiding using my fingertips, and ordinary activities like eating and dressing demanded concentration and manual agility. Peeling them off each night began to tell on my own nails, which started to weaken and discolour. I tried leaving the false ones on overnight, but would wake up to find several of them scattered rather painfully inside the bed, while the rest hung on miserably at seriously contorted angles. Nonetheless, as I watch TWL ebbing and flowing on screen and gesticulating wildly using those talon-tipped appendages, it’s clear that the suffering was worth it.
I suppose if I had to choose, my favourite episode would be ` Godfrey of Basingstoke`, with Ian Cuthbertson glorying in the role of the clankingly dull knight. Not only because it was the one episode that revolved around TWL and her singularity, but because it contained one of the most delightful lines Kip Carpenter wrote for her. At one of their meetings after a bout of wild weeping at her lack of identity, she stands up at the long table and wails: The White Lady! THE WHITE LADY! I’m not a ghost… I’m just a description! It makes me smile with pleasure every time I think of it.
So who was The White Lady really? And did she actually know who she was? She spends a great deal of time throughout the series trying to find out, but when it looks likely she might be discovered, she very soon manipulates the situation in favour of continued anonymity and her own independence. As a matter of fact… and this is just between you and me….. I’m pretty sure she knows exactly who she was, but she ain’t telling. And just between you and me… I’m pretty sure I know who she was. And I ain’t telling either.
SHEILA STEAFEL September ‘05
Richard Carpenter has been writing or adapting kids tv classics for over 35 years, many of which are finally being re-released to a new generation on dvd. John Connors looks at his career from Catweazle to I Was A Rat.
There is a television script writer whose work has delighted and entranced generations of children and, I would suspect, adults as well yet although some of the shows he conceived and wrote are well known and, in a coupe of cases, acknowledged genre classics, the fact is that if you Google the name `Richard Carpenter` you’re more likely to find references to the 70s MOR ballad specialists than you are to one of the most imaginative and skilled tv writers of the last forty years.
Richard Carpenter was born in 1933 in Kings Lynn in Norfolk and as he grew up became a great fan of seemingly opposite ends of the creative world; he loved comics but also Shakespeare while `The Beano` shared his reading time with tales from Greek mythology. Its easy to see how such disparate influences would later shape his writing and help him combine simple plotting with strong characters and a sense of history that grounded them. He went to the Old Vic Theatre School and learned the acting trade in repertory theatre going on to spend years as a jobbing actor appearing in many well known television series of the 1950s and 60s including Hancock’s Half Hour, The Strange Report, Knight Errant, The Baron, Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars. During this time he started to write short stories for radio and having experienced life in front of the camera, his writing was actor driven something that shows strongly in all his key series. Carpenter later admitted that it was his own experience of receiving scripts that didn’t sparkle which encouraged him to write his own. As well as the childhood influences and his history as an actor, Carpenter thrived on certain limitations, which by chance would probably suit television’s budgetary considerations. “I always try and limit the number of characters I use” he said “because the more you limit it the more you are thrown back into interrelating those characters in an interesting way. Ultimately it isn't stories that are important, it's characters, the way they react and the way that particular writer scripts that particular situation. Because all situations are common to drama, there are millions of the same situations appearing again and again, but it's the way the writer tackles it that makes it unique and gives it a stamp of personality.”
A notice he saw on a gate whilst on holiday in 1968 that said `Catweasel` inspired his first commissioned television work. Amending the spelling, he ended up with Catweazle, which gave him his break and also teamed him up with director Quentin Lawrence who brought a sense of realism to proceedings. The first series, broadcast in 1970 and consisting of thirteen episodes, proved enormously popular and the show won a Writers Guild Award in 1971.
Catweazle is as alien to 2005 as the world of 1969 was to its 11th Century character. Recently released on dvd (complete with comprehensive Making of booklet) the show’s simple premise- 11th century magician Catweazle is trapped in the 20th Century- is delightfully brought to life by director Lawrence. We are taken to a place of dreamy summer woods, childish shenanigans, solving simple problems and hiding out from adults. Its gloriously sunlit world is as encapsulated and remote from hectic modern life as the “Sun in a bottle” that Catweazle describes in the first episode when first encountering a light bulb. Can you imagine today’s kids even relating to something in which reaction to a light bulb or a telephone (or “telling bone”) is the fulcrum? The show could only have been written in those times; the very idea of a grubbly old man – 11th Century or not- befriending a young boy just isn’t believable in our more paranoid society. It’s a shame because the series is never cloying; in fact the relationship between Catweazle and the 14 year old boy (the improbably named Carrot) is quite fractious and essays normal kids friendships with all the bust ups and misunderstandings that brings. Even at the end, when Carrot is quite emotional over his friend’s departure, the magician himself just sees it more pragmatically. Catweazle is about magic but it truly is magic too, because it conjures something fascinating and when you’ve watched it, it seems like you were there; it is rose tinted memories made real, even though of course you weren’t there. I never saw an episode till this year but now the first season feels like some distant memory of an incredible summer. The casting of Geoffrey Bayldon was a masterstroke of course; he captures every nuance and makes us believe he is from another time. The series was so successful that a second series was inevitable though Carpenter wasn’t as happy with the follow up, largely because of format changes imposed from his bosses at LWT who saw transatlantic interest being drawn in if the location was changed from a farm in the first series to a country estate and the warm central cast replaced by stereotypical `English` characters.
Nevertheless he went on from here to contribute to The Adventures of Black Beauty a series developed by Ted Willis and very loosely based on Anna Sewell’s classic book. Set in 1887 in a fictitious village called Five Oaks (actually filmed in Hertfordshire) it featured the goings on of a doctor’s family and their associates and inevitably the titular horse would gallop to the rescue or occasionally need rescuing itself while there was always a moral to be learned. Undemanding yet stylishly produced and book ended by one of the best remembered tv themes of the 70s, it was a breezily filmed show with tight 25 minute long self contained episodes and some of the best are now available on dvd. Carpenter contributed eight episodes of the first season broadcast from Autumn 1972 to Spring 1973, some of which were directed by Charles Crichton. For the second series in 1973-74 he wrote nine scripts, three of which `The Medicine Man` (directed by Gerry Poulson who would helm Carpenter’s later series Dick Turpin), `The Escape` and `Game of Chance` are available on a `best of` compilation dvd.
During the early/mid 70s while working on other shows, Carpenter penned three stories for the BBC’s Look and Read, a series in which short episode storytelling was used to teach reading and observational skills. The series ran for a considerable time into the 1980s and beyond. Carpenter’s first story was 1971’s The Boy From Space also the one most remembered by adults terrified by John Woodnutt’s Thin Man character and later described by Carpenter as “about the most difficult thing I’ve ever written”. He followed that in 1976 with The King’s Dragon a more conventionally written tale of an ancient amulet that had belonged to King Harold and featuring 70s tellys’ favourite villains, smugglers! This story is notable for starring Sean Flanagan as the juvenile lead Billy West, at the time he was also playing Matt in The Ghosts of Motley Hall. Cloudburst was Carpenter’s final contribution and concerned the invention of a rain gun. For the intended young viewers this story had a strong moral that technology can be used for both good and bad reasons and Carpenter later commented: “I was getting at nuclear energy really.”
Invited by Quentin Lawrence to pen a series for Granada involving one set and a small cast, Carpenter was in his element with The Ghosts of Motley Hall, which ran for three series from 1976-78. Bolstered by a cast that included experienced character actor Freddie Jones, comedienne Sheila Steafel, former comic turned actor Arthur English and two unknown but talented new faces, theatre actor Nicholas le Provost and teenager Sean Flanagan, the light comic drama was a huge hit, receiving a BAFTA nomination and winning the `Look In`’ readers award twice. Like a stage play, The Ghosts of Motley Hall thrives on the interaction between the cast as they boisterously interpret Carpenter’s lively scripts.
Richard Carpenter’s next series was Dick Turpin, which ran for three series between 1978 - 81 and starred Richard O’Sullivan in the title role. An unlikely choice, O’Sullivan was known for light comedy series like Man About The House and Robin’s Nest but it turned out to be canny casting as he brought a casual likeability to a character that could be difficult to turn into a hero. Using such a well- known highwayman as the central character was a typical brave Carpenter gambit and in many ways the series is a dry run for the more lavish and even more popular Robin of Sherwood. Yet whereas the latter is set in a kind of mystical half world, Dick Turpin is about as earthy as you were allowed given a 5.15pm timeslot and the series strived for realism in its production style and dialogue. Rather than graft the historical setting onto essentially 20th Century plots, Carpenter and his directors (including Gerry Poulson) went for something earthier so, while there may have been no blood and Turpin never killed anyone, there was a harshness to the setting where mud, drunken brawls, buxom wenches and fist fights were shown as the norm. The characters were mainly a collection of thieves and rogues, some loveable but many black hearted and duplicitous. There was even an attempt at what sounds like some authentic period language, for example horses were “prancers” and “nags”, girls “doxys” or “trollopes” while people didn’t hang, they “swung”.
Turpin himself is portrayed as without scruples and very much a loner, which sets him apart from some of the whiter than white heroes that kids television offered at this time. He has flings with girls, he robs indiscriminately and while he has his own code of good and bad his aim is generally to make money for himself. One particularly well- written aspect of the series is his sparky relationship with sidekick Swiftnick, played by Michael Deeks. Turpin doesn’t welcome him at all and even later they still argue and Turpin isn’t above threatening his assistant who remains unswervingly loyal. Swiftnick thus provides a more conventional young hero type allowing Turpin a freer reign. Christopher Benjamin and David Daker enjoyed themselves as the blundering villains of the first two series and there was plenty of action meaning the viewer would never be bored. The only drawback was the 25 minute episode length which made it difficult to tell anything more than fast paced stories and it was this that Carpenter was able to amend in the later Robin of Sherwood. The whole series was filmed in a place near Maidenhead called Ockwells Manor and if you look carefully you’ll see the same building done up as about a dozen different taverns. O’Sullivan called Dick Turpin “ a rattling good series” and he was right; it’s a great romp, lacking any pretension other than to entertain which it does consistently while edging near the knuckle and presumably getting away with it. There were two 13 part series and a 5 part adventure that was part financed by the US company RKO and shown as a TV movie over there.
As well as working on Dick Turpin, Carpenter was also adapting some of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories for a new television version co-funded by a German company. There were 26 episodes made altogether and Carpenter shared adaptation duties with Gail Renard, Richard Sparks and Gloria Tors. Some work was needed to modernise the cosiness of Blyton’s originals but the timeslot meant that anything too strong was out of the question hence the villains became rather camp and nobody ever used the guns they carried in the first season. A change of producer for the second allowed a little more leeway but plans for a third were scuppered when, with all the original stories filmed, the sinisterly monikered Enid Blyton Foundation issued an edict (probably from their underground lair) forbidding the producers to start writing their own. The series was a ratings hit and delivered a solid adventure each week with Carpenter and co having deleted a lot of the period stuff to make it a contemporary show. It’s believed that the later Comic Strip spoof Five Go Mad In Dorset was influenced by this version of the stories. The series was also notable for having a terrible theme song `We Are The Famous Five` in which the name of Timmy The Dog was stretched over half a line to get it to fit! Wonder what Toddy Woodgate thought of that? In 1979/80, Carpenter also contributed to a cartoon series called Dr Snuggles which concerned a scatter brained inventor who travelled around with a bunch of bizarre friends such as robot Mathilda Junkbottom, The Treacle Tree, Nobby Mouse and even a walking talking wooden shed named Rickety Rick. He used various inventions to defeat enemies such as Professor Emerald, Charlie Rat and Madame Midas. His modes of transport were equally as inventive and included a flying wooden barrel called the Dreamy Boom Boom and a jalopy called the Snuggletruck. It may sound like something that could only be invented after imbibing something very strong but the script team included some of the top names of the day; as well as Carpenter, others who contributed were John Lloyd, the top comedy producer and even Douglas Adams while the voice of Dr Snuggles was Peter Ustinov. It was produced in this country but actually animated in the Netherlands.
In 1980, Carpenter unveiled another historical action adventure series titled Smuggler. Set in 1802 it concerned the story of ex-British naval officer turned smuggler Jack Vincent who has to “live by his wits and his sword in order to survive in the treacherous world he finds himself in.” Described in publicity as “a headstrong loner”, Vincent finds himself entangled in the espionage war between Britain and France. Oliver Tobias, action hero de jour of late 70s/early 80s telly took the lead role with Jim Goddard directing what was a swashbuckling show consisting of 13 half hour episodes, eight of which were penned by its creator. HTV produced the show, which along with its sequel Adventurer does not seem to have made a lasting impression on viewers; in fact there is very little information around on either show.
In 1983 came the series which, along with Catweazle, Richard Carpenter is best remembered for and which was probably his biggest commercial success; Robin of Sherwood. As he had a few year earlier with Dick Turpin, he took a legendary character surrounded by conflicting stories, re-invented it and created what many feel is the definitive take on the whole thing. Crucially he added a mystical edge and captivated another generation the same way he had a dozen years earlier with Catweazle. Carpenter tapped into ideas that had gestated since his childhood experiences playing and his love of the English woodland, as well as the things about Dick Turpin that he’d have liked to improve, in particular the episode length. With a lavish budget to play with he set about re-inventing the Robin Hood legend. There’s a lot of real history and some pretend as well and production standards were so high that other channels held the series up as an example of what they should be producing. Perhaps the biggest gamble was changing the star when original lead Michael Praed moved on after two seasons; Carpenter simply used a different Robin Hood legend and a new Robin Hood was possible.
The story starts with Ailric of Loxley, Guardian of the Silver Arrow, an ancient symbol of pre-Christian England, who had led a rebellion against his Anglo-Norman masters, for which his home was destroyed by Norman pillagers and he was murdered. His son, Robin (Michael Praed), was adopted by the local miller and swore to one day avenge his fathers death. Some years later Robin encountered Herne the Hunter, a forest spirit possessed with the powers of light and goodness, who appeared before him in the form of a man with a stag’s head and he endowed Robin with Albion, one of the Seven Swords of Wayland. Our hero thus became Robin in the Hood thereby realising the prophecy of the Silver Arrow. Along the way Robin met up with his legendary band of merry men including Little John (Clive Mantle), Maid Marion (Judi Trott) Friar Tuck (Phil Rose) and the rather psychopathic Will Scarlet (as played by a then lesser known Ray Winstone) plus a new character Carpenter added, Nasir, a Saracen played by Mark Ryan. After two series Robin of Loxley was killed and Herne chose another, Robert of Huntingdon (played by Jason Connery, son of screen legend Sean), to lead the outlaws for one more series of noble adventuring. Carpenter has described “television politics” as the reason for the series’ ending after 24 episodes and much acclaim. (there’s more on Robin of Sherwood in this issue)
During his Sherwood sojourn, Carpenter also worked on the series The Baker Street Boys, which concerned a juvenile Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Although he didn’t create the show he did contribute two four - part stories `The Ghost of Julian Midwinter` and `The Adventure of the Winged Sacarab`. Six years after Smuggler, Carpenter devised a sequel series for hero Jack Vincent that was commissioned by Thames as a joint production with some of the budget coming from TV New Zealand. Oliver Tobias again starred as Vincent with the action moving forward to 1810 where he has been convicted as a smuggler meaning his naval career was finished. Directed by Chris Bailey and broadcast in 1987, the twelve- part show’s publicity blurb says that Vincent “leads a cast of misfits and miscreants in a struggle for survival complete with mutiny on the high seas, hostile natives and thwarted vendettas.” It all sounds exciting enough but like its predecessor it seems to have vanished into obscurity. In 1991, Carpenter’s second foray into animation came with The Winjin Pom; developed by the team behind Spitting Image albeit with a much younger audience in mind. The series chronicled the adventures of a group of globetrotting Australian animals, the Gullagaloona backpackers, going round the world on the cheap courtesy of a rather grumpy British camper van, the Winjin' Pom.
One of Richard Carpenter’s best- known adaptations arrived in 1992/3 when he wrote the screenplay for the BBC’s impressive version of Mary Norton’s book The Borrowers and its sequels. The two series were notable for what were groundbreaking special effects at the time allowing convincingly scaled and realised representation of the little people who lived in cracks and corners and scavenged from “human beans”. Carpenter’s script remained faithful to the tone of the novels while adding a more contemporary dialogue to some of the conversations and the top- notch cast included Ian Holm, Penelope Wilton and Sian Phillips. Director John Henderson drenched everything in brilliant summer tones and the end result deservedly won two BAFTA awards for best children’s series and best photography as well as a Royal Television Society award for best children’s drama and in the States received an Emmy nomination. In many ways, The Borrowers was something of a last look back to the golden age of children’s television drama as subsequent big shows in the 1990s would attempt grittier issues or start to seem like mirror images of adult soaps. Proof of the enduring quality of the series came in 2000 when it was the second highest place children’s drama in BAFTA’s all time Top 100 list.
1994 saw Carpenter pen another hit series, this time a four parter entitled Stanley’s Dragon which would certainly have made a great film and is summed up by one critic as “a wondrous tale in the best E.T. tradition… (a) story of a boy and his pet dragon.” Stanley Katz is a young American exchange student who loves exploring and pot-holing but when he finds a mysterious egg on one of his expeditions, the last thing he expects to hatch from it is a baby dragon. Olly, as he dubs it (as in Stan and Olly…) is kept hidden in his ramshackle bedsit, as his nosy landlord tries to discover what’s going on but it eventually turns into an awesome thirty foot long creature whose existence causes officialdom to swing into action. Poor Olly ends up a depressed exhibit in a zoo until Stanley sets out to rescue him. Directed by Gerry Poulson who did a lot of Dick Turpin and Black Beauty episodes, Stanley’s Dragon is a more swooping sort of piece perhaps lacking in the character department, partly due to its brevity, but managing to put across a story about animal rights and the way we treat and trust each other with verve and lots of Carpenter style interesting dialogue. Plus you get perennial tv character actor Milton Johns in fantastically slimy form as Stanley’s inquisitive landlord while young leads Judd Trichter (who in episode 1 is energetic to the point of blurring) and Mia Fothergill acquit themselves well. Ultimately the success of the show stands or falls on the depiction of the dragon and it largely works even though to an adult viewer it is clearly a collection of wires and animatronics. Yet it had an enormous power and somehow Carpenter’s writing and Poulson’s direction made it seem like a character rather than just a big monster so that by the end you felt and cared about it. The series was critically acclaimed and nominated for both BAFTA and Royal Television Society awards
Out of Sight was to be Carpenter’s next success story and won him another Writer’s Guild of Great Britain Award. Shown over two series in 1997- 1999, it concerned a boy called Joe who is able to turn himself invisible with the use of a magic green spray while trying an experiment. To remove the invisibility he used water and he and his best friend Ali then used their new `power` to get into all sorts of adventures. Amongst the things they did were make some some scientists believe in ghosts, stopped a pupil cheating on a test, scared a returned puppeteer to go to a birthday party and foiled a bunch of thieves. The plots were lively and the tone mischievous with some great and likeable characters. The same year, 1997, Carpenter also adapted True Tilda a 6 part serial based on the novel by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch. Set in the 19th Century, it tells the story of a young girl who runs away to the circus where she befriends a boy who she helps to try and regain his inheritance. The production starred Morgan Bell, Eric Graves, Isla Blair and Joe Duttine.
Given his record it’s perhaps surprising that Carpenter stayed – or perhaps was encouraged to stay- firmly in the children’s and/or genre bracket but in 1999 he wrote several episodes of the BBC’s new Sunday evening adaptation of the story of The Scarlet Pimpernel which featured Richard E Grant in the role of Sir Percy Blakeney the masked and mysterious figure staging daring rescues during the terror of the French Revolution while avoiding detection by the head of the Committee of Surveillance, Citizen Chauvelin (played with as much gravitas as he possibly can by Martin Shaw). Set in 1793, the series actually bore more than a passing resemblance to Carpenter’s own past works such as Robin of Sherwood and particularly Dick Turpin though clearly more money was spent and instead of the forests and woods of old we spent much of the action in castles and grand buildings. The series was certainly a good deal livelier than what usually passed for weekend drama and was loosely based on books by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. It followed The Pimpernel’s adventures saving Marguerite’s brother and his secret identity from Chauvelin, trying to save a young girl caught between a rebel army and a vicious agent of Robespierre, even saving the young King Louis from a cunning assassin. It all looked fantastic with excellent costume, set design, action sequences and cinematography yet was much criticised at the time for lacking any reason why Blakely does what he does plus, as more than one critic rather unfairly pointed out everyone speaks with an English accent.
In 2001, Carpenter won the prestigious gig of adapting His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman’s earlier book I Was A Rat and the result was a critically acclaimed co-production between the UK and Canada shot on location in both Toronto and London. “I was a rat. Now I'm a boy" says wet and bedraggled Roger when he winds up on the doorstep of Bob and Joan. To this gentle, childless couple, he seems an ordinary small boy (with a few ratlike habits); soon, however, poor Roger is pursued by the "Daily Scourge" newspaper, a fairground owner who wants to put him in a freak show, and a mad scientist who thinks Roger is an alien yet Bob and Joan stand by Roger, even when it takes a bit of royal intervention to figure out who he really is. Tom Conti and Brenda Fricker headed the cast and direction was by Laurie Lynd. I Was A Rat was nominated for a BAFTA award proof that thirty years on from the triumph of Catweazle Carpenter was still working on quality material. Some writers may sneer that adaptation work is easier than thinking up your own ides, but bear in mind that tv and film are wholly different storytelling mediums and each require specific and special skills.
Some of Richard Carpenter’s thoughts on his craft were discussed in an interview on writing for children a few years back; “I believe writing for children should ultimately create a feeling of hope and optimism” he stated. On comic writing he said; “(children)…adore to see adults in trouble. Children like jokes –usually based on puns – whch they generally tell very badly because telling jokes is a technical thing anyway. Jokes have a sort of `now I’m going to be funny` thing about them which is why children like them.” He also says that visual humour is the same for adults or children but “only works if the characters and situations are strong. Its isn’t enough to push a custard pie into someone’s face. We must know what motivates it. There must be a build up.” He cites Laurel and Hardy as strong examples because, he says “we know them as people and their locked in relationship….deep down we know they love each other. However wild the visual knockabout, the two of them remain completely believable”. This is a strong trait in Carpenter shows; they are full of strong relationships - Catweazle and Carrot, the Motley Hall ghosts, Dick Turpin and Swiftnick - and whatever they fall out about, however much trouble they get each other into, at the end their friendship wins through; an important message for a younger audience.
Carpenter also argues against dumbing down too much for a kids audience and is critical of a lot of children’s comedy consisting of “very bright colours, manic presenters and gross over-playing; its all very basic and doesn’t say anything about people, which is of course what comedy’s all about, whatever age group you’re writing for.” His own series are notable for a high incidence of quieter, subtle moments that sneak in subconsciously making the characters seem warmer and more real. One key thing he points out is the clash of reality and fantasy which time and again is the backbone to his programmes; Catweazle landing on an ordinary farm, a boy who can make himself invisible living in a world the viewer can identify with, the way ghosts still have meetings, arguments, songs. “If one restricts the fantasy to one element, the rest of the world must be as real as possible,” he says, “In Out of Sight invisibility is the fantastic bit, but everything else is normal and everyday.”
In his biog, Carpenter’s hobbies are described as painting, sculpture, jazz and talking to anybody about anything. Quite where he finds the time to actually write is anyone’s guess! Now in his seventies, his work rate has slowed but he is still busy plus he’s been looking back over the years by doing commentaries on recently released dvds of Catweazle and Motley Hall. On one of these he talks about a series he’s been working on called Rogues and Vagabonds about a group of strolling players set in the times of Cavaliers and Roundheads. Unfortunately it seems this is a series that won’t be made, with period dramas being out of vogue at present. Yet it seems unlikely that we have seen the last of such a creative and dynamic writer who has been responsible for hundreds of hours of exciting, witty and enjoyable television that is really for anyone who has a little imagination and soul.