Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (7.2.6)

Doctor Who Poster - The Crison Horror

BBC Doctor Who Site

Mrs Gillyflower: Join us in this shining city on the ‘ill!

There’s trouble ‘t mill in this splendid romp, written by that aficionado of cinematic horror, Mark Gatiss. Tough as old boots, Mrs Gillyflower is played by Diana Rigg, clearly loving the role of this completely over the top villain. In a stroke of genius her long-suffering daughter, Ada, is played by her own own daughter, Rachael Stirling. In addition, three of of my favourite characters show up to help the Doctor out of his pickle – Madame Vastra and her partner, Jenny, and the still bloodthirsty but well-trained Sontaran warrior, Strax. (“You’re over-excited. Have you been eating those jelly sherbert fancies again?”)

The episode is full of the sort of theatrical northernness you might find in the Fosdyke Saga, mated with cliches from cinematic horror movies, and tempered by a Whovian sensibility. I particularly enjoyed Mrs Gillyflower’s organ, which revolves to reveal the launch panel for her rocket. Touch of the Dr.Phibes there, which would have been even more perfect if Mrs Gillyflower had played something. And special mention for the engaging Thomas Thomas, who gives such perfect directions to Strax, just as he’s about to shoot his fourth horse in a week.

We don’t see the Doctor or Clara until well into the episode, except in the last image captured in a dead man’s eyes – a dead, red man, seeing a red Doctor. Madame Vastra and Jenny travel to 1893 Yorkshire, where Jenny infiltrates Mrs Gillyflower’s chilling cult of moral purity. Only the most perfect survive being dipped into a vat of red Jurassic leech venom. These lucky, petrified people get to live under glass domes in perfect little houses in Sweetville, Victorian values at their most explicit. Clara makes the grade, while the Doctor’s rejected, but doesn’t die like all the other rejects who get dumped in the canal. Blind, scarred Ada takes a fancy to him and locks up her “monster” in a cell.

Until he’s rescued by Jenny, and they rescue Clara, and the whole gang takes on the  evil Mrs Gillyflower and her “silent partner,” Mr Sweet. As well as being the modified descendant of Jurassic leeches, Mr Sweet has thriven on the polluted waters of the canal. Together, he and Mrs Gillyflower are producing industrial quantities of his red venom to purify the world.

Unmasked by the Doctor and his companions, Mrs Gillyflower tries to spread her red venom around the world, in the the form of a rocket (what else) hidden in a factory chimney. Foiled by Clara’s chair-in-the-control-panel ploy, she takes Ada hostage and triggers the secondary firing mechanism in the chimney. Too late! Madame Vastra and Jenny have the vat of red venom that’s the rocket’s payload. Strax shoots the pistol from her hand, she falls to her death, and Mr Sweet crawls off but can’t escape getting pulverized by an irate Ada. Huzzah!

Lots of questions from Madame Vastra and Jenny about Clara. The Doctor appears to be sticking to his conclusion from last week, that Clara is just Clara. But Madame Vastra is having none of it: “I was right then. You and Clara have unfinished business.” If that weren’t enough, there’s the photo of Clara in Victorian London (not Yorkshire), which is among the photos her charges have discovered on the internet. Come to think of it, the Doctor was extremely keen to get Clara to 1893 London, but by then she’d had enough of Victorian values. In any case, now the kids know their nanny’s a time traveller, they want a go in the time machine as well.

Perhaps this was the perfect episode, I don’t know. But aye, it were reet grand.

Book Review: The Seance

The Seance (Jonathan Cape, 2008), by John Harwood.

I love a good melodramatic Victorian mystery, filled with supernatural trappings, and this novel has them all. There are not one, but two plucky young heroines, occult powers, seances, cruel families, love at first sight, threats of the asylum, mad inventors, villainous husbands, and a sinister country house. There’s also a suggestion that the villain is none other than Jack the Ripper. At the heart of the story is Constance Langton’s search for her real identity, revealed through three separate narratives. Constance’s narrative is set in 1889, with flashbacks to the 1860s in the others.

Harwood properly ladles on the atmosphere. You can’t help but sympathize with Constance, who must endure an emotionally absent father, and an emotionally cruel mother who lavishes all her affection on Alma, Constance’s younger sister. This is one of the reasons why Constance thinks herself a foundling. When Alma dies of the scarlet fever that she has just recovered from, their mother is thrown into a deep depression. Her father leaves Constance to deal with it all, just as soon as she’s old enough, on the excuse of writing a book at his sister’s house.

Her mother’s grief can only be assuaged by trying to contact Alma in the afterlife. Glad to be of some help, Constance knowingly, if guiltily, takes her to fraudulent seances. They are successful, with an unintended consequence. After finally “seeing” and “holding” Alma, her mother happily commits suicide that same night, leaving a note that says, “Forgive me – I could not wait.”

This part of the novel, set in London, serves as a preface to the main gothic mystery of  Wraxford Hall on the Suffolk coast. Do you need me to tell you that Constance inherits the place and its dark past? It’s told through the account of her solicitor, and his former acquaintanceship with a charismatic previous owner, a mesmerist who mysteriously disappeared. As did two others before him, all during thunderstorms. And also told through the account of Eleanor Unwin, the mesmerist’s wife, before returning to Constance and her daring expedition to Wraxford Hall in the company of a band of psychical researchers. Think Victorian ghostbusters.

Harwood keeps the overall narrative flowing, despite dividing it into thick chunks. It falters a bit on the characterization. Both Constance and Eleanor are thoroughly plucky young women, to the point where I sometimes felt they were too much of a muchness.

Wraxford Hall, a decaying Elizabethan pile, is a major character in its own right, with a real brooding presence. I’m giving nothing away by saying that the occult is not taken seriously in this novel – indeed the opening epigram is a recipe for producing a convincing spirit manifestation. It does seem a waste of all the splendid supernatural props – Wraxford Hall being most impressive – to not set a tone of greater credulity before revealing the smoke and mirrors. My willing suspension of disbelief was ready and waiting.

That said, the novel works well without it, relying on the intensity of Constance’s search for her real identity. I’m impressed by the way Harwood subverts my expectation of the obvious dramatic climax being the end of the story. There’s an old wrong to be righted, and Constance is the woman to do it.

Poem of the Week: Dover Beach

A great poem resonates in every age, sometimes in small, intensely personal ways, sometimes echoing a crisis on the public stage. So it is with Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold, written in 1851. A poem lamenting the loss of certainty in religious faith is now emblematic of a similar loss of faith in Mammon, the failed god of free market capitalism.

Christianity in Arnold’s day had politically powerful supporters who did all they could to quench the new skepticism, just as today governments are still beholden to corporations and financial institutions. And the ignorant armies are once more clashing by night, one side with too much to lose, and the other with not enough knowledge of practical politics  or financial leverage to bring about change. I hope we learn quickly.

I don’t mean to be reductive, or to make Dover Beach a didactic tool. There’s no worse crime against poetry. For me it’s primarily a poem full of mysterious, evocative images, capable of endless interpretation. But it also resonates now, in this crisis of economic faith, as much as it did for Victorian Christians.

Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;–on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Matthew Arnold

P&M Hurll, Glasgow

I found this brick at an abandoned dock on Campbeltown Loch.  Perfect subject for a photo, with the pinkish brick texture contrasting with the green, shiny seaweed.  And then there was the inscription, which made me want to find out more about this relic of industrial archaeology.  Didn’t think I’d have much luck, but of course Google and Wikipedia know all, see all, and will deliver it up to your browser at the tap of a key. P&M Hurll Brickworks is surprising well documented, although this site only talks about the Glenboig brickworks in North Lanarkshire, outwith Glasgow but bordering on it.  They also had a brickworks in Old Drumchapel within the city.

I discovered there are people who are passionate about old bricks.  One such is Dave Sallery at Penmorfa.com, who hosts an online collection of 1,398 bricks at the time of writing, as well as lots of pictures of steam trains.  There are 16 sites under the Penmorfa umbrella, covering many other aspects of industrial archaeology.  Well worth a look, if you’re interested in how the infrastructure of 19th century Britain was created.

While I’ve always loved steam trains, the attraction of bricks had passed me by until that spring day last year when I photographed the old dock in all its glorious decrepitude.  They’re a tangible reminder of the effort that goes into the construction of the physical fabric of a place.  An army of ghosts, without whom we would have nothing.

Here’s what it looked like, including a half sunken WWII patrol boat.  This is also where I found Lockdown and Geometry & Geography.

Work: Ford Madox Brown

 Work, painted in 1852-3 by Ford Madox Brown, is one of my favourite Victorian paintings.  This lively street scene, with its diverse cast of characters, has the same fascination as The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke – I’m drawn into the picture.  But while there’s no escape from Dadd’s claustrophobic vision, I would be be happy to wander off up that street in the top right of the painting, just to see what’s round the corner.

It’s a very moral painting, celebrating the maxim that work is ennobling and beneficial.  Look at how clean, strong, and healthy the labourers are – and the pretty young wife of one of them has brought their three children and several dogs into the picture, to demonstrate the virtues and blessings of family life.

Everyone looks well, if not well-off, apart from the flower-seller.  Her ragged coat, tattered dress, and bare feet at least give a nod in the direction of economic reality.  The factories in the North where children worked 12 hour days in filthy, dangerous conditions for meagre pay are left completely out of this picture.  Ford Madox Brown’s patrons would not have thanked him for rubbing their noses in the source of their prosperity.

His patrons are represented in the prosperous Victorians walking or riding past the roadworks.  I particularly like the two men leaning against the railing and enjoying the sight of other people working.  They’re probably armchair labourers, telling each other how the work might be managed more efficiently.  Could one them be Ford Madox Brown?  The man in the brown coat, leaning on a stick and looking out at the viewer, is remarkably like his photo.

On one level, I know this is propaganda, painted to show a stable, contented society where the sober, industrious lower classes know their place and everyone gets along in a civilized way.  But the cheerfulness and postcard quality of the sunlit scene combine to superimpose the picture’s reality on my mind.

It does look very attractive – I’d love to step into the painting and walk up that road to the right.