“It won’t be a joke anymore, will it — once you’ve posted it?”
“It never was a joke, Billy.”
“No, but you know what I mean. Once you’ve posted it, no one else is going to use the word ‘borrow’.”
Séance on a Wet Afternoon was very much a personal project of Bryan Forbes and to a lesser extent Richard Attenborough. Both were its producers and Attenborough essayed one of the two principal roles, but it was Forbes who adapted the film’s screenplay from a novel by Mark McShane, persevered in getting the film cast, and directed the final product. Forbes got his start as an actor in British films from the late 1940s onwards, but he had other aspirations that first bore fruit in the form of successful screenplays (beginning with 1955’s The Cockleshell Heroes). Continuing to both write and act, he then took the next step of directing a film with the successful 1961 Whistle Down the Wind. The L-Shaped Room followed in 1962 before Forbes turned his attention to Séance on a Wet Afternoon.
With Richard Attenborough set as the male lead in the film, Forbes turned his attention to casting the female lead. It would prove to be a frustrating process when various choices such as Simone Signoret and Margaret Lockwood did not work out for various reasons (one didn’t like the subject matter, the other was not considered a good box-office bet). At one point, Forbes even entertained the idea of changing the story to that of two men rather than a married couple in hopes of attracting the interest of Alec Guinness, but Guinness declined. Forbes then thought of Kim Stanley because of her work in the 1958 film, The Goddess, and managed to secure her agreement to act in “Séance.”
The resulting film was released in 1964, but apparently did not attract a great deal of attention in Britain. It actually was more of a success in the United States. Both Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough received considerable recognition for their acting efforts. Stanley was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, but lost out to Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins. She did win best actress status for the year 1964 from both the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle. Attenborough was accorded best actor status by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and also recognized by the San Sebastián Film Festival for his work.
The film is now available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment.
Myra and Billy Savage are a couple eking out a living in British suburbia in modest comfort, Myra having inherited a large Victorian house. The two exist on the proceeds of Myra’s efforts as a medium who holds séances in one of the rooms of their home. In an attempt to further improve their circumstances, Myra conceives of a plan to kidnap a little girl from a wealthy family, collect a ransom, and then reveal the little girl’s whereabouts apparently by means of her abilities as a medium. Billy reluctantly goes along with the plan. At first, the two are successful in taking the little girl from her school and delivering her to their home where they hold her captive by making her think she is in a hospital. When Myra puts her plan to offer her services as a medium into effect, however, police suspicions about Myra and Billy are piqued and things start to unravel as the pressure starts to get to the pair.
Some films tend to get overlooked with the passage of time. Many times it’s simply that a film was not particularly memorable to begin with, but occasionally something really great manages to suffer the same fate. An excellent example is Séance on a Wet Afternoon. This is a film filled with atmosphere and tension that holds one riveted for almost two hours as a chilling tale is gradually spun out in front of us. There is no violence of any kind nor any horrific scenes to shock the faint-hearted, yet the tale maintains suspense throughout. Sometimes the warped thoughts and actions of ordinary people are scarier than anything supernatural.
It begins in a low key and slow-moving fashion as a middle-aged couple discusses something that’s not at all clear to us but certainly sounds ominous. What draws our attention during this initial 20 minutes (and helps hold it throughout the rest of the film) are two extraordinary performances from Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough as Myra and Billy Savage respectively. They fix the nature of their characters and their relationship almost immediately. Billy is a weak, uncertain individual who seems totally dependent on his wife. He is compliant to her every whim even as he exudes guiltiness and despair about being so. You wonder if he can hold it together enough to carry out whatever it is that is expected of him. As Billy, Richard Attenborough (complete with a rather effective fake nose) submerges himself in the gentle, gray-looking husband with the sad, pitying eyes and guilty conscience. Myra has managed to subjugate Billy by preying on his basic insecurities as well as playing to the death of their unborn child, Albert — subtly blaming Billy by playing up her own despair over it as well as Billy’s own guilt. She seems like a woman on the verge of madness throughout, half living in the real world and half in a world of her own. Kim Stanley plays Myra in one of her infrequent film outings (preferring the theatre for most of her career). Here, she is nothing short of brilliant, handling Billy as though he were a child, yet unable to deal effectively with the real child she and Billy have kidnapped. An American actress, she is entirely believable as a British woman of the times (post World War II) delivering a good British accent and a wonderful look of slightly-hurt resignation over her husband’s perceived inadequacies.
One of the many impressive aspects of the film is the look that director Bryan Forbes in concert with cinematographer Gerry Turpin has managed. There is a constant sense of dreariness that persists throughout, whether it’s the intermittent falling rain, the overgrown ruins of a former playing field, or the stifling claustrophobia of Myra and Billy’s home. Intended or not, it’s all very suggestive of the somewhat bleak postwar period when Britain still suffered from the costs of World War II with food rationing a constant irritant and a general sense of national malaise that led many citizens to consider emigration to other Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In the midst of the oppressive atmosphere created, the precision and building urgency of the kidnapping and ransom collection sequences stand out all the more effectively. John Barry’s score (written fairly early in his career) is also a strong contributor to the film’s overall tension and air of unease.
The DVD release is from Home Vision Entertainment, which apparently had some difficulty in coming up with decent source material if the image transfer is any indication. The film is presented in a 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer that unfortunately is characterized by noticeable debris, scratches and speckles. While the transfer is a distinct improvement over existing video sources, it is occasionally dark with attendant loss of shadow detail. In attempting to sharpen up the image, a noticeable amount of edge enhancement has been introduced. It’s unfortunate that the DVD results don’t measure up to the quality of the film content.
The sound is a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono mix that adequately conveys this dialogue-driven film. Occasional hiss can be noticed, but it’s not a significant distraction. No subtitling or closed captioning is offered.
There are no on-disc supplements at all. A useful two-page essay on the film appears on the insert pamphlet.
Anyone who already is familiar with Séance on a Wet Afternoon will be delighted to hear that it is now available on DVD. For those to whom it is an unknown quantity (and I suspect there are many), that availability should also be a cause for pleasure. For they now have the opportunity to see an excellent psychological thriller that features a couple of stunning performances and beautifully captures the atmosphere of an England still stifled by the lingering after-effects of World War II. Home Vision’s DVD is at best an adequate effort, although clearly superior to the previously-existing video versions. Still, the film is so fine, I highly recommend the DVD.