Sunday, 31 May 2009

Cult TV DVD review: 'Escape Into Night'


The one with the stones...the stones with eyes...

It’s more or less a given that, when forty-somethings get together and the chat turns to “Ah, they don’t make kid’s TV like that any more, do you remember...?’ someone is eventually going to mention that one with the stones. The stones with the eyes. Something to do with a girl in a bed. And the stones. The stones with the eyes... Rarely can anyone remember the show’s name and the conversation soon changes to more readily-shared Tv memories like Thunderbirds, The Tomorrow People and Dr Who.

The show they’ll have been vaguely remembering was called ‘Escape Into Night.’ Based on Catherine Storr’s novel ‘Marianne Dreams’ (and later filmed as ‘Paperhouse’), ‘Escape Into Night’ was screened as a six-part ATV kid’s drama in 1972. Despite being screened only once and then consigned to the Archives, the show had a massive impact on its audience and while the detail of the story may have faded, those images of the stones – the stones with the eyes – lingered and remain imbedded deep in the psyche of the kids who watched ‘Escape into Night’. And frankly, having just seen the serial again courtesy of a superb new DVD from Network (not available to buy in the shops, available only through www.networkdvd.co.uk ) I’m really not surprised the show struck a chord or two with its young viewers. I saw the show too and whilst my memory has clearly cheated in some respect, I’m really rather surprised the show didn’t utterly traumatise a whole generation, turn their hair white and send them off screaming to bed, too terrified to ever fall asleep again. Unlike much ‘classic’ TV from the 1960s and 1970s which doesn’t always stand the test of time, ‘Escape Into Night’, although a bit of a period piece in terms of its production, still presents as a dark, disturbing and extremely disorientating and unsettling piece of TV. Maybe the fact that the only print available of the series is in black-and-white adds to its sense of disquieting mystery.

Marianne Austen (Vikki Chambers)is confined to bed following a horse-riding accident. Her anxious Mum (Sonia Graham) fusses over her and tries to keep her entertained but, in these pre-ipod, pre-mobile phone, pre-daytime TV days, Marianne soon gets bored and spends her time doodling in a sketch-pad. She draws a house with a figure in the first floor window. Suddenly, in her dreams, she’s there, outside the house, looking up at a fresh-faced blonde-haired boy gazing down at her. Inside the house she finds Mark (Steven Jones), the pyjama-clad boy, unable to walk, sitting in a bare, featureless room. Back in the waking world Marianne realises she can influences what happens in her ‘dreamworld’ by sketching in her pad; when the boy annoys her she makes sure he can never leave the house by drawing little blobby shapes with eyes to surround the house. When she returns to the house she finds it watched by man-sized stones with one blinking eye. She uses her ‘powers’ to give the stranded boy food and entertainment and, eventually, a bike for him to exercise on. In the real world Marianne is visited by Miss Chesterfield (Patricia Maynard), a teacher who keeps up Marianne’s education and tells her about the other children she visits – including one boy with polio who is seriously ill and can’t walk. Eventually, in the dreamworld, Marianne and Mark have to escape the house before the stones can break in and kill them...

The stuff of young nightmares, then, ‘Escape Into Night’ is a strange, almost-ethereal little series. With its tiny cast and handful of sets (and some impressive location filming around the purpose-built house where dream-Mark is trapped) it feels stifling and claustrophobic and Marianne’s dreamworld, in particular, seems distant and unearthly. In some ways it’s hard, at the end of it all, to work out quite what the story has been telling us. Is it a story about growing pains, tolerance, the power of the imagination of a child? ‘Escape Into Night’ offers no answers – we just have to assume that Marianne has this ‘ability’ to enter her own dreamworld and, by the use of a ‘special’ pencil, she’s able to adjust her dreamworld as she sees fit. In some ways this sense of unexplained mystery makes the series even more unusual; it has none of the laboured exposition and neat loose-end tying we’re used to in our fiction. It’s up to the viewer to interpret the story their own way and to make of it what they will.


Technically ‘Escape Into Night’ is very definitely of its time. The sets look stagey and the acting is terribly RP; Marianne and her mother, despite their rather modest home (or at least the bedroom and hallway we see of it) are clearly presented as upper middle class, all posh vowels and ‘Thank you, mummy’. But the performances of the small cast are uniformly impressive. After a dodgy first episode Vikki Chambers as Marianne settles into her role and handles the wordy demands of a part which sometimes veers dangerously into the ‘shrill juvenile lead’ territory of much 1970s children’s television. Better is Steven Jones as Mark; strong and confident, initially ambivalent about his predicament but later as desperate to escape the house as Marianne as the ‘living stones’ guarding the house start to become more hostile and threatening. The cast is rounded off by Edmund Pegge as a very obliging doctor (housecalls day and night, those were the days!) and a young Patricia Maynard as the likable Miss Chesterfield. Oh, and then there’s the stones...


Those damned stones are etched on so many memories, mine included. And yet over the years they’ve created their own memories of the series. For example, I watched every episode of ‘Escape Into Night’ awaiting the sequence where the stones somehow crowd around outside the bedroom window of Mariann’es home in the ‘real’ world. This never happens and yet I can see it as clearly as I can see the keyboard I’m writing this review on. No, the stones are just there, in the darkness outside the dreamworld house, their one eye blinking, their numbers increasing. In time they become more and more determined to get into the house – although they don’t seem to move very fast, if at all – and their modulated voices, a strange cross between extremely camp and extremely angry Daleks, have a surprisingly chilling quality about them as they cry “Not the light! We are coming!” over and over again as the series moves towards its climax. To modern eyes accustomed to 21st century prosthetics and flashy CGI, the stones might look like bits of fibreglass with an eye in them but there’s no denying the fact they still look creepy and threatening and just...wrong.

‘Escape Into Night’ has more in common with heavier children’s fare like ‘The Owl Service’ and ‘King of the Castle’ than the more routine contemporary adventure serials like ‘The Tomorrow People’ and ‘Freewheelers’. If you’ve not seen it before you’ll be struck by its sheer oddness and if you saw it at the time you’ll find it will surprise you and it may not be quite what you were expecting.
And if your memory of the series is the stones...the stones with the eyes... I can assure you they’ll creep you out now just as they did over 35 years ago. ‘Escape Into Night’ is a bold and remarkable television series and comes highly recommended.

Escape Into Night is not available in shops and can only be purchased by visiting www.networkdvd.com Tell 'em Stuff sent you!

6 comments:

FRANK said...

Excellent review, Paul. That pretty much sums up what I thought of it too. Similarly, I hd the experience of waiting to see images and scene that I thought were in these episodes but n fact weren't. They were just exaggerations of what is there, things I thought I saw.

That's when the memory cheats I'm afraid but you're correct to say that this is up there with 'The Owl Service' and 'Sky'.

paul d said...

Thanks for this great review Paul!

Haven't watched all the dvd yet but it does seem just as eerie as I remember so far. You say there is no real "explanation" of it all - this is good news as it is more powerful to leave the viewer to find their own answers. Suffice to say that the mind has depths which we rarely get to explore in a concious way - perhaps only when we dream or have a fever etc...

I can identify with this aspect of the storyline because I suffered illness as a child which forced me to stay in bed for weeks on end. There is one shot which was incredibly resonant for me - it is when Marriane seems to come out of her dream for a brief time and back into her room to hear her teacher talking, but the room is dark and the teacher is distant and lit seemingly by a spotlight. I recall similar changes in my own perception of reality like this during my illness - things that you know are nearby suddenly appearing quite distant as though you were looking down on them.... I think it was probably to do with a mix of strong medicine and low blood sugar or something at the time but to see this semi dream-like state suggested on screen was amazing and sent shivers down my spine!

patti flynn said...

this series absolutely terrified me as a child.
i think i was about 7 when it aired in new zealand.
i've only ever met one other person who saw it...and she was just as terrified...and i couldn't recall the name at all...but sure enough, i found this review while googling " children's tv series stones with eyes"!

i don't know if i am up for a re-watch.

Paul Mount said...

Hi Patti,

If you can track down 'Escape Into Night' you'll probably find that time has dimmed its power a bit but it's still a very strong piece of TV and it's truly remarkable that back in the 1970s kids were given programmes this compelling and intelligent to watch. It's worth your time if you can steel yourself to face your nightmares again!!

sales said...

Really excellent review of a series which scared the crap out of me as a kid. Like another visitor I googled stones with eyes and it led me here. Great review and I think I will buy a copy.

k3vc4l said...

Just came across this whilst discussing it on facebook with someone..
Thanks for the trip down memory lane - I've never got over watching this series and can still have flashbacks..! ;)