Still haunted by The Woman in Black: the bone-chilling power of ITV's long-lost horror classic

Pauline Moran as The Woman in Black - ITV/Rex
Pauline Moran as The Woman in Black - ITV/Rex

There is a scare in the 1989 TV adaptation of The Woman in Black (a scare known by the relatively few people who have seen it as simply “that moment”) that’s up there with the most terrifying things ever seen on British television.

After a long night of ghostly torment in Eel Marsh House – haunted by voices, self-unlocking doors, and a ball which bounces itself – bumbling solicitor Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlins) is in the grip of a fever dream when – ARGH! – the Woman in Black comes for him, screeching a sound of pure, soul-curdling horror. Much more than just a jump scare, it’s the inevitable eruption of all-out terror after 90 minutes of subtly-crafted suspense.

So frightening is “that moment”, that Pauline Moran – The Woman in Black herself – remembers it scaring a load of burly men literally out of their seats. “There was a screening for the cast and crew,” she recalls. “In front of me was a row of men – technicians and props people, all good honest blokes – and when that came on the screen, every single one of them leapt away in the same direction. I was absolutely howling with laughter.”

Based on the novel by Susan Hill and adapted by TV horror visionary Nigel Kneale, The Woman in Black was first broadcast on ITV on Christmas Eve 1989. More than 30 years later, it’s almost like a ghostly legend itself, its reputation passed around by those who saw it – via word-of-mouth or taped-off-television video.

It was repeated on terrestrial TV only once, on Channel 4 in 1994, and had limited VHS and DVD releases. For many years it languished in spectral, grainy form in the dark corners of YouTube hell. Now it’s come to Blu-ray for the very first time, released by Network.

Susan Hill’s original book was published in 1983, a classic ghost story pastiche in the tradition of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The theatre version by Stephen Mallatratt opened in Scarborough in 1987, before moving to London’s West End, where it continued to haunt the Fortune Theatre until lockdown.

In 2012, the resurrected Hammer Films produced a glossy version starring Daniel Radcliffe, followed by cash-in prequel Angel of Death in 2015. (Amusingly, Adrian Rawlins played James Potter, Daniel Radcliffe's father, in the Harry Potter films.)

With some variations, each version of The Woman in Black follows the same basic story. Young London solicitor Arthur Kipps travels to the coastal town of Crythin Gifford to sort the affairs of recently deceased client, Alice Drablow. He finds that Drablow lived as a recluse in Eel Marsh House, a spooky old manor that sits alone on the Nine Lives Causeway, surrounded by marshland and cut off entirely during high tides.

Matthew Spencer in the West End production of The Woman in Black - Tristram Kenton
Matthew Spencer in the West End production of The Woman in Black - Tristram Kenton

At the funeral, Kipps first sees the Woman in Black, whose appearance – as he learns from traumatised locals and clues found inside Eel Marsh House – always preludes the death of a child.

Produced by Central Television, the idea for the film was put forward by Chris Burt, producer of Inspector Morse, Lytton’s Diary, and various Sharpe adventures. Herbert Wise was brought on board to direct – one of TV’s top directors at the time, having directed all 13 episodes of I, Claudius – while Nigel Kneale, who had shaped British horror and science-fiction on both radio and television with seminal, still-influential plays such as the Quatermass serials, The Year of the Sex Olympics, and The Stone Tape, was a perfect choice to write the adaptation.

“Kneale is known as a writer of these huge original, influential ideas but he was also a really skilled adapter,” says Andy Murray, author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown. “He started out adapting things for television. He did Wuthering Heights, 1984, Look Back in Anger, and loads of others. He could do this stuff so well.”

The Woman In Black
The Woman In Black

Kneale wrote the script in just 10 days, but Susan Hill was unhappy with numerous changes to her original story and has often commented how she disliked the film. The Edwardian setting was updated to the comparatively modern 1925; Hill’s original ending – depressing enough in the first place – was re-imagined as a remorseless nihilistic tragedy; and the lead character changed from Kipps to Kidd, because Hill had borrowed the Arthur Kipps name from HG Wells’ eponymous hero.

“Kneale was an HG Wells fan and took offence,” says Murray. “He decided she couldn’t nick HG Wells’s name. It seems quite petty but it’s on that level that Kneale would go through things. If he felt that something in a story needed changing he would just do it! He could be quite free with his adaptations.”

Just as Susan Hill’s book was written in the style of literature’s classic ghost stories, the TV version was produced in the style of the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas. Based mostly on M.R. James’ stories, also an inspiration for Susan Hill’s book, the short film series which broadcast on Christmas Eve between 1971 and 1978 and returned on-off since 2005.

The Woman in Black has all the key elements: the sombre rural landscapes and crawling mists for our doomed hero to wander through; the isolated, quite obviously haunted house, both deathly still and somehow alive with strange noises and moving parts; the lead character driven to near-madness by unexplained goings-on; perfectly composed camerawork, creating suspense by teasing – but rarely revealing – the sudden emergence of some unknown monster.

“I never show the horror,” Herbert Wise once said. “I hint at things. It’s much more powerful to let the audience imagine what it’s going to be like.” And, of course, an actual ghost, usually glimpsed in the distance but somehow never far away – a presence that’s always there, even off-screen.

Pauline Moran was cast for what she describes as “the ability to convey malevolence with no warmth at all.” She’s absolutely right; the performance is bone-chilling. “In those days I looked a bit ethereal and pre-Raphaelite,” she says. “I do have very piercing blue eyes, which I inherited from my mother. And I’ve always had a leaning towards the gothic.”

'I nearly went into the lake': Pauline Moran in The Woman in Black
'I nearly went into the lake': Pauline Moran in The Woman in Black

The story behind the Woman in Black, as Arthur discovers, is that she is the ghost of Alice Drablow’s sister, Jennet Goss (Humfrye in the book). After being forced to give up her illegitimate son to Drablow, Jennet would try to kidnap her own child. But their pony and trap was lost in the marshes, where they sank and drowned.

Playing the Woman in Black meant being motor-boated out to Osea Island, which doubled for the marshes and Nine Lives Causeway, each day (“I still have visions of being carried off by the current!” she laughs).

It was bitterly cold. “I had full thermal long johns under the costume,” Moran recalls. “And I was wrapped from head to toe in cling film because of the drizzle soaking through.”

In the book, the Woman is described as having the appearance of suffering from a wasting disease, with skin hanging thinly from her bones. In the film, she’s like the Wicked Witch of the West in mourning – an agent of vengeful malice, twisted by the buttoned-up repression that caused her both the shame and pain of losing a child. She appears just a handful of times, entirely wordless, a harbinger of death. “When there are no words, all you can do is play the moment and situation and progress it through those appearances,” says Moran about her performance.

While the big scare – “that moment” – is the lasting image (and one scrawled deeply into the never-quite-the-same-again mind of anyone who saw it), Moran’s most chilling moment comes earlier, when she comes face-to-face with Rawlins’ helpless solicitor on the grounds of Eel Marsh House. Silent and still, she unnerves him with an unearthly stare. Just the hint of movement towards him sends Arthur fleeing. “She wasn’t just looking, she was hating,” he later says. “It was somehow like a hunger.”

Pauline Moran as The Woman in Black - Rex
Pauline Moran as The Woman in Black - Rex

For the film’s tragic conclusion, months after Arthur has escaped Crythin Gifford, the Woman appears one last time, standing on a lake while Arthur and his family are boating. A branch falls from a tree and kills the entire family (Arthur’s family are also killed in the book, but he lives to tell the tale, recounting the story to his second wife and stepchildren on Christmas Eve).

“I got letters from little boys afterwards wanting to know how I walked on water at the end,” says Pauline Moran. “I didn’t tell them of course. I just said it was one of my special skills, which is why I got the part. In fact, I was stood on a piece of wood no bigger than a breadboard. The wind was so powerful it was buffeting against me. I had difficulty staying upright. It was eddying the water around but going in the opposite direction, so there was a peculiar sort of optical illusion. I very nearly went into the lake.”

The bleak ending is characteristic of Kneale’s work. “Quite a lot of his writing is bleak,” says Andy Murray. “He probably read the novella and thought, ‘I’m not going to do it like that… the way I’m going to do it is that everybody dies!’”

But Herbert Wise took credit for the idea of that final shot. Speaking to Tony Earnshaw for the essay In Pursuit of Unhappy Endings, published in Neil Snowden’s collection on Kneale We Are The Martians, Wise even described having a whip-round among the crew to hire the crane he needed for the shot, because producer Chris Burt refused to pay the extra money (though Central stumped up in the end).

Perhaps most interesting is how Kneale brought in one of his trademarks: the uneasy combination of the supernatural and technology. In 1952 he wrote the radio play You Must Listen, about a haunted telephone line; in 1963, The Raid, a lost play in which an 18th Century village is haunted by the ghosts of a future war; and The Stone Tape, about past events being recorded in the walls of an old house.

In Kneale’s version of Eel Marsh House, Kidd discovers a gramophone from which Alice Drablow’s voice crackles from beyond the grave, recounting her own experiences with the Woman in Black. Arthur even comments on how the ghostly sound of the pony and trap accident, which he hears repeatedly, has been “somehow recorded, like the machine I’m speaking into now.”

“It’s almost like a period version of The Stone Tape,” says Andy Murray. “It’s this idea, which is quite common currency now, that a haunting might occur because strong emotions or dramatic events are stored within the stone of the building and replayed like a tape recorder. When you look at the scope of Kneale’s career, he took something that Susan Hill wrote and shaped it more into something he would write.”

Herbert Wise said the film was, “Certainly one of my better films,” and Nigel Kneale was also a fan of the finished production. “In terms of Kneale’s career, this is very late on,” says Murray. “His heyday was the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, but it’s a fantastic piece of work. He was very fond of it – he thought they’d done a good job. And he was not easily pleased! He quite liked the stage version too. It’s really pared down and he said something like, ‘I had a whole village to play with and they had a bare stage and two actors!’”

Later, the Hammer Films version – adapted by Jane Goldman and directed by James Watkins – interpreted the story for a modern mainstream audience with a higher body count, a nerve-rattling number of jump scares, and redemption for both Daniel Radcliffe’s Arthur and The Woman in Black herself. But if that version is about overcoming grief – both Daniel Radcliffe’s Arthur and Liz White’s Woman are reunited with their respective dead loved ones – the 1989 version is about the pain and inevitably of a cold, black death.

Daniel Radcliffe in the 2012 film of The Woman In Black - Rex
Daniel Radcliffe in the 2012 film of The Woman In Black - Rex

It’s utterly remorseless and far more powerful for it. Strangely, Susan Hill was more supportive of the 2012 adaptation, despite more drastic changes to the story. But Hill later told Andy Murray that her view on the TV version had softened. “I changed my mind about it,” Hill said. “In hindsight it’s better than it first seemed. It has improved with age in my sight.”

For those still haunted by the 1989 version, its legend continues. Thirty years later and I’m still debating with a friend about whether there’s a picture in the background of “that moment” which moves on its own, or whether it’s just an optical illusion. And Pauline Moran continues to have an affinity for the spirit of Jennet. “The last time I saw Adrian Rawlins he was on at The National,” she says. “He was sitting outside and I sidled up next to him like The Woman in Black.”

Hill denied persistent rumours that she’d somehow suppressed the film. It was likely the confusing rights situation that kept The Woman in Black mysteriously locked away. When I talked to Pauline Moran at the end of last year, she told me, “Unfortunately, I don’t think it will be shown again.” We were both pleasantly surprised when just a Blu-ray release was announced just a few months later – complete with an audio commentary track from horror expert Kim Newman, super-fan Mark Gatiss, and actor Andy Nyman (who appears in an early supporting role). It also looks stunning, crisper than it's ever looked.

Part of The Woman in Black's legend was, as Andy Murray says, “it’s un-reachable-ness”. And somehow, the grainy spectral existence on YouTube felt true to the idea of Nigel Kneale’s ghosts, that would repeat themselves like archaic recordings. But the Blu-ray release has resurrected The Woman in Black. An old legend to terrify a new generation.

The Woman in Black is available from Network now

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