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Tales of the Supernatural (DVD)

From the publisher’s website: Whether you believe in them or not there is no doubt that tales of ghosts, strange happenings and things that go bump in the night are stories that we love to hear.  This spooky film includes eye-witness accounts of the girl who communicates with the dead, a phantom figure captured in a photograph and the unexplained story of the church bell that rings itself.  Prepare to be chilled and disturbed as you venture into a world of haunted police stations and ghosts of Cambridge Colleges.

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First Author: 
Andrew Gray (producer and director)
Reviewed for SPR by: 
Tom Ruffles
SPR Review: 

Timereel Studios compile DVDs using archive footage to tap into the nostalgia history market, and their list includes a couple of paranormally-themed discs, Tales of the Supernatural and Haunted London.  Based in Norwich, they have strong links with the East Anglian Film Archive, the final resting place of Anglia Television’s recordings, hence Tales of the Supernatural has a distinctly East of England flavour (it was originally released as Ghosts of East Anglia).

The segments are linked by host Dick Glover – who bears a passing resemblance, probably coincidental, to veteran ghost investigator Peter Underwood – sitting in a cosy study with a crackling fire.  The films he introduces include a wide range of individuals recorded by Anglia Television since it began operation in 1959 who had had brushes with what they considered the paranormal, plus the odd sceptic.  An early example is an interview recorded in Sheringham in 1961 in which a witness describes a Black Shuck encounter thirty years before.  This film is available on the East Anglian Film Archive website and, confusingly, according to their record the name of the witness was Leslie Goodwin, but on the DVD it is given as Tom Starling.

Films become more frequent as the years progress.  In Fakenham in 1975, for example, a mother and daughter found that their house had a sinister atmosphere, the mother was attacked by a force that tried to strangle her with her crucifix, and both they and their next-door neighbour saw apparitions.  The King’s Head at Diss the following year was the scene of a ghost with which the landlord’s young daughter communicated.  Her parents attributed it to her imagination, until the landlord himself saw a green hazy ghost.  They were all remarkably unfazed by their experiences.  A feisty George Davey at Halesworth in 1982 awoke to see what he thought was an intruder in his bedroom.   George grabbed the shotgun kept conveniently near his bed, doubtless for such emergencies in crime-ridden Halesworth, and challenged the figure, whereupon it vanished, leaving its shoes and socks for a moment before they followed after.

Borley is the subject of a very brief 1960s featurette, but the details are sketchy and include nothing substantial.  Another well-known case, from 1966, is that of the photograph Gordon Carroll took in the parish church of St Mary’s, Woodford, in July 1964, showing a figure apparently kneeling before the high altar.  Unfortunately the impact of the colour slide is lost in a black and white film, and Carroll himself is not interviewed.

There are some recent interviews describing strange experiences, the dates of which are not given and which were presumably filmed for the DVD, such as the lady near Norwich whose house was built on the site of an old burial ground and who woke one night to find the heads and shoulders of three men staring down at her for several seconds before disappearing.  Another concerns Peter Yaxley, who was walking on the flats near Stiffkey (mispronounced on the film as “Stiff-key” whereas it is actually “Stukey”) when he spotted a figure in the distance walking a large dog.  Uncannily, the figures left no traces in the damp sand.  Locals thought the sighting matched the recently deceased ‘Jack’, but it would be nice to think Mr Yaxley saw the shade of Stiffkey’s “prostitutes’ padre” Harold Davidson, taking Black Shuck for a run.

In another section, a more standard-issue clergyman than Davidson pops up to confuse the viewer with a diatribe indiscriminately blasting mediumship, séances, witchcraft, the occult and black magic as aspects of Satan’s snare.  A rather more sensible-sounding cleric, Fr Paul Maddison, describes seeing an oven light itself, and a kettle boil while disconnected.  Cambridge does not feature much, surprising given its rich paranormal history, but there is a 1997 Anglia News interview with the assistant butler at Peterhouse who said he and a colleague had seen a ghostly figure in the Combination Room, and the interviewer noted that knockings had been heard there.

There are many similar films of people telling their stories and they form an interesting collage, but for SPR members, the most intriguing parts are probably those featuring the late Tony Cornell, a hugely experienced investigator and the author with Alan Gauld of the classic Poltergeists (1979).  Tony features in two segments, one the investigation of Hannath Hall, near Wisbech, the other Morley Hall, near Wymondham.  Tony and Alan wrote an article on Hannath Hall in the September 1960 issue of the SPR’s Journal: ‘A Fenland Poltergeist’.

Morley Hall figures extensively in the longest section on the DVD, in a documentary called The Unknown which Anglia Television transmitted on 24 August 1964.  Tony Cornell acted as advisor and was asked to demonstrate a typical spontaneous case investigation.  The atmospheric Morley Hall, a large sixteenth-century building which was being restored, was chosen by the television company for the purpose.  Tony is prominent, and there is a rather lovely sequence in which he is shown walking around the labyrinthine building.  It’s all about as far from the histrionics of Most Haunted as you can get.

The Morley Hall investigation has achieved some fame, because this is the recording which caused several viewers to contact the station to say that when Tony was being interviewed, they could see a hooded monk behind him.  The interview was broadcast again, and more people wrote in to say that they could see the figure.  Cornell and Gauld wrote the story up in the March 1969 Journal, as ‘A “Ghost” on Television’, concluding that the shape was an illusion caused by the pattern of markings on the background stonework.  Tony also covered the monk ‘sighting’ at Morley Hall in his 2002 book Investigating the Paranormal.  Unfortunately this sequel to Tony’s interview is not mentioned on the DVD.

In addition to the archival content there are dramatic reconstructions, such as the Hannath Hall story, the legend of Brother Pacificus who is said to haunt Ranworth Broad, and the account of the police constable who in November 1956 heard a bell tolling in a church.  When he went to investigate found the church empty but the rope swinging.  This was tenuously thought to link to the death of the owner of nearby Foulden Hall on the same date ten years before.  Another police-related film recorded a visit to Haverhill police station, presumably in the 1970s, when a heavy cell door slammed on its own, and a typewriter was heard operating in the middle of the night when that floor was unoccupied.

Tales of the Supernatural is a fascinating record for anyone interested in ghost stories, or interested in seeing a bygone age and what it did with its hairstyles and wallpaper.  People are certainly far more comfortable on camera now than they used to be, and some of the earlier interviews are notably stilted (though Tony Cornell always comes over as very relaxed).  In terms of spontaneous case investigation, the kit may be more complicated nowadays, but the essential elements – intelligence and empathy – are the same today as they were fifty years ago.

But while it makes enjoyable viewing for those wanting to wander down memory lane, it does have drawbacks for anyone wishing to use the DVD for research purposes, the major one being that there is inadequate signposting between different archive films – it is not always clear where they begin and end – and between archive films and sequences shot for the DVD.  There is also trimming of footage.  The Leslie Goodwin/Tom Starling interview on the disc is missing the first shot; admittedly this is just him hoeing his garden, but it casts doubt on the integrity of the rest.  According to Cornell and Gauld’s ‘A “Ghost” on Television’ article, The Unknown ran for half an hour (probably slightly less with advertisements), but the length on the DVD is a mere 18 minutes, and cuts off abruptly at the end of the interview with Tony.  One has to wonder what has been edited out of the films.

The linking commentary usually, though not always, provides the year a film was made, but no further information, so notes setting out the dates of transmission, and for short magazine items, the programmes in which they first appeared, would have made the package even more useful.  Despite these flaws, it is good to see old films retrieved from the vaults. Anglia Television is to be applauded for not discarding them, and Timereel Studios for making them available to a wide audience.  There must be more of a similar nature sitting in regional collections, and further DVDs on the theme from around the country would be welcome, perhaps compiled with a closer eye on the integrity of the source material.

Reference Information: 
Tales of the Supernatural. Timereel Studios, PAL Region 2, Ref No TRAN05