tue 25/06/2019

The Dead Room, BBC Four review - ghosts at the microphone | reviews, news & interviews

The Dead Room, BBC Four review - ghosts at the microphone

The Dead Room, BBC Four review - ghosts at the microphone

Simon Callow shines in Mark Gatiss's supernatural tale

Tales of terror and unease: Simon Callow and Anjii Mohindra

Fired by the spirit of the MR James ghost stories which used to be a Christmas staple on the BBC, Mark Gatiss conceived this amusing bonne bouche as both a seasonal chiller and a nod to the ghost of broadcasting past. In passing, he also managed to shoehorn in a survey of changes in social and sexual mores which have occurred over the last 40 years.

His vehicle for this was the venerable thespian Aubrey Judd, host of the long-running radio show The Dead Room when he's not picking up TV bit-parts as "dementia man 2". As he described it himself, in his fulsome and fruity and r-rolling baritone, “Aubrey Judd, bringing mild disquiet to radio listeners since 1976”. No-one could have done this better than Simon Callow, who took to the role with all-consuming gusto, bringing to mind generations of old-school actors who have struggled to readjust to changing times and galloping technology. "There's no privacy any more, not a scrap," he wailed, in a rant about the iniquities of social media.

Pompous and self-obsessed, inclined to deliver didactic speeches about how things were done in the old days (and why they were better), Judd was an index of incorrectness. The mutual incomprehension between himself and his young producer Tara (he kept calling her Tanya) was neatly portrayed, as Judd rudely dismissed her choice of a new writer’s story about “teens playing haunted computer games” as a piece of nonsense which gave no respect to the classic rules of horror stories. He tartly corrected her use of the phrase “quite unique” – “it’s either unique or it’s not.” Tara (Anjii Mohindra) felt forced to enlighten him that his use of the terms “knockers” and “dwarf” were no longer acceptable (pictured below, Mohindra and Callow with Susan Penhaligon as Joan).The Dead Room, BBC FourNonetheless, Judd’s doomy Victorian-gothic delivery of his scripts was a treat to behold, while the depiction of the workings of a radio studio was handled with documentary-style verité. Gatiss worked another ingenious angle by setting his story in the BBC’s old Maida Vale studios, a slice of Corporation history now scheduled for closure. This was where Judd had begun working on his horror show 40 years earlier, and as the drama progressed, it increasingly became a crucible for his own long-buried nightmare.

The broadcast that went wrong started going a bit funny when Judd found himself reading a suddenly-altered script. In place of computerised mayhem, he was telling a story about a young blond man sunbathing beside a lake. The lighting changed mysteriously, and the studio decor looked suddenly antique. He started suffering flashbacks to the sizzling summer of 1976, when Prime Minister Jim Callaghan had to appoint a Minister for Drought and Fox’s “S-S-S-Single Bed” was in the charts.

As his anguish and confusion intensified, the facts inevitably unravelled, about Judd’s homosexual affair with the 20-year-old Paul, how he feared it would damage his career, and his shame over the way it ended. The climactic scene of past-meets-present was, unfortunately, comical rather than terrifying, and had been predictable from some way off, but this was a crafty piece of storytelling with several strings to its bow.

Judd’s doomy Victorian-gothic delivery of his scripts was a treat

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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