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Saturday, 21 May 2016

THE SPIRIT OF DARK AND LONELY WATER (1973)

Back in 1970s Britain as a child I remember the government making admirable attempts on TV and in the cinema to provide the public with recommendations and warnings surrounding anything in society that needed caution. They ranged from gentle suggestions aimed at adults on how to save water and electricity to more extreme mini horror films pitched at children alerting them to the dangers of live power cables, farm machinery, unsafe waters and road traffic etc. Their methods were eclectic depending on the subject and audience as well as tonally on the time of day. (The famous Noel Coward-style ‘bed-time routine’ couple dancing their way around the house disconnecting any potential fire hazard items is a charming example of palatable late-night advice especially for vulnerable adults). 

Cartoon or stop-motion animation was one method of getting the message across to the little ones. Who from my generation can forget the ‘Charlie Says’ cartoon series featuring the little boy and his impenetrable gobbledigook-spouting cat softly urging us to beware of sex offenders? 


Another means was to film real scenes using friendly actors who were household names to children, such as the then-recent third Doctor Who John Pertwee in the over-sophisticated road safety acronym campaign Splink! (1976).


This led to a plethora of weird and wonderful films, some fondly recalled, others indelibly stamped with fear on young impressionable minds. I intend to focus on the latter as a valid addition to the horror canon that is not only uniquely British but showcased later notable actors and long-form film directors such as John Mackenzie who went from the tractor terror of Apaches (1977) to gangster menace in his 1980 seminal feature The Long Good Friday.

It’s easy to forget that the ‘70s were a time of greater innocence for children. Rather than ignore the warnings and stride into the dangerous waters of ‘grumpy old man’ territory, I don’t imply they were better days but young kids were certainly protected from exposure to types of material that erodes naivete increasingly early nowadays. The discovery of AIDS in the mid-1980s required a more graphic sex education, the omnipresent and invaluable internet is a largely open door to easily-accessible pornography, health and safety demands create debatably draconian rules for what used to be slightly more relaxed attitudes. There is also the heightened post-millenial awareness about paedophilia that is ingrained in children much more now than when we were in their place.

An important and rosier aspect to consider is that back then in the pre-digital era children played much more on derelict waste grounds and old bomb sites from the still-ongoing post-war reconstruction. Actor Terry-Sue Patt who was in the infamous The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water in 1973 (and went on to TV fame as Benny in Grange Hill) recalled ”There were no computer games, three TV channels, and kids lived outdoors: entertainment was going on adventures, finding excitement in odd places.". These youngsters arguably needed stronger cautioning against outdoor perils than later generations who often substitute real-world dangers for safer indoor XBOX and PS console thrills.

These tightly-plotted short sharp shocks are sadly the end of a discontinued legacy, a talent training ground (and arguably still-necessary part of educating our young) that is no longer with us creating the same impact.

Take my hand as we explore the world of the 1970s British public information film. Stay close and DON’T talk to strangers…

THE SPIRIT OF DARK AND LONELY WATER (1973)

“Sensible children…I have no power over them”

1973 England was a somewhat gloomy place to live. The country was besieged by increasing inflation rates and by the year’s end the national miners’ strike was one of many instigated to force public sector pay rises, leading to the Conservative government declaring a three-day working week to husband the dwindling stocks of fuel. Meanwhile, a doomier note was struck in the tone of an unforgettable public information film with its own literal Grim Reaper.

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, written and directed by Jeff Grant, was commissioned after the Home Secretary Reginald Maudling was pressurised by ROSPA (the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) over the unacceptable number of accidental child drownings in Britain. Something was needed to warn kids in no uncertain terms about the dangers of playing near dangerous waters, and if the vivid memories of my generation are anything to go by, it worked extremely well - even decades after seeing it only once.

Voiced by the esteemed master-eccentric actor Donald Pleasance (a veteran of my own alma mater Ecclesfield School), the robed and hooded Spirit stalks the water-sides looking for children innocently risking their lives at the edges of ponds and rivers – “the show-off, the fool”. His voice is the most memorable facet of the film, a chilling matter-of-fact narration edged with a faux-concern that fools no-one. This is a predator who lurks in hope of engulfing a young life. We never see his face. We don’t need to. He could be anywhere.

The cinematography effectively captures the misty foreboding of the murky depths that await the reckless. A little blonde boy slip down a muddy bank and it’s game over for him as the Spirit arrives ominously behind his friends to blankly witness his latest statistic. An older boy chances his arm literally, hanging from a branch to over-reach for something on the water’s surface. “It’ll never take his weight” observes the Spirit with silky, restrained glee. A sign ordering ‘Danger. No swimming’ prefaces a tracking shot detailing a veritable scrap-yard’s worth of rusty old jalopies, beds and weeds, death-trap henchmen of his to snare and drown young flailing bodies. But our opportunistic monk has his own Kryptonite: “Sensible children…I have no power over them” he curses, the line echoing to reinforce the power of common sense to the audience. “Oy mate, that’s a stupid place to swim” admonishes a cockney stage-school Artful Dodger as he and his pal help out a bedraggled kid in trunks who’d attempted swimming in such a picturesque spot.The only slightly false note is the dialogue when the lead boy says: “Here mate. Cover yourself with this”. It doesn’t quite ring true as a real child’s reaction, more that of a mouthpiece for shoe-horning in sober adult responsibility.

   One of them throws the Spirit’s empty cassock into the muddy water, causing Pleasance’s ghostly kiss-off “I’ll be back”, likewise underlined with an ominous reverb…

The lack of incidental music adds to the clinical documentary feel of The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water – 90 seconds of succinct and haunting power and a lesson in safety and film-making to all.

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