england’s dreaming #4: valentine dyall
Prior to 1978 the BBC had no policy for archiving material. Tapes and tapes of promethean TV and radio were wiped with impunity. I cant help but be fascinated by the idea of all the lost material- all those stories seen once, then destroyed, leaving behind occasional scripts and nebulous folk memories. Who knows if the Beatles only studio Top of the Pops performance will ever show up? Or whether we can ever get to see those many missing episodes of Dead of Night? And crucially, if we do, would they- could they- ever be better than the mythical phantoms our brains have conjured in their long absence?
I guess its possible that the wondrous, endless, hurtling archive of the internet is coming at some expense to our collective imagination. We no longer stretch our mind to fill in the blanks. We dont have to piece together favourite kids TV shows, mixing our current prejudices with blurry recollections of jingling chaos, coming up with impossibly pleasing fantasies ; instead we just Youtube them. Zippys voice sounds horrible. Turns out Crackerjack was crap. So much for romance.
But those tapes of material that set the frame for so much of what we consume- well, theyre gone. They can only be served by oral history and the interplay between memory and imagination. Maybe theyre no worse for it.
This is all a roundabout way of getting to my topic for the week a largely forgotten actor by the name of Valentine Dyall. Dyall was a fixture of British drama, on the stage, on the wireless and on the box, from the 1940s right up to his death in the mid 80s. His first major role was the radio series Appointment With Fear. The show was an English version of seminal American schlockfest Suspense*, with Dyall narrating as The Man in Black. Blessed with hell deep tones, he took wicked delight in his torrid tales of terror, and by all accounts the show was gripping listening. Ill never know for sure almost all of Appointment with Fear has been lost, wiped by the unsentimental technicians of the Beeb.
However, a tape recently resurfaced of a rare 70s horror short, narrated by Dyall. The film is a creepy meta-horror where a radio presenter, much like the young Dyall, writes, then narrates, a horror story that has unfortunate consequences. Theres a subtle irony at play, as Dyall uses the medium of TV to narrate the downfall of a radio star, perhaps reflecting on the distant golden age of his own career. In those days, radio was a power and a light in the land, he intones, … Radio fixes the person, but frees the imagination
Here it is, genuinely chilling, and a great example of how little a budget matters in creating a sense of foreboding:
After watching A Childs Voice I started looking into Dyall. He seemed like a good man, often on the side-line of great things. As the narrator of Appointment with Fear he would appear at the start of the show for a few moments, before allowing other actors to unfold the devilry. He was happy to laugh at his own sinister caricature, sending himself up as The Man in Grey on the Goon Show, or popping up for a cameo in Blackadder. He appeared in Dr Who on a few occasions as the Black Guardian. But best of all, he ended up in the cast of two seminal English horror films, one justly feted – The Haunting and one almost entirely forgotten City of the Dead.
Thanks to the previously mentioned wonders of the internet, I can give you links to both. If you havent seen The Haunting, its probably one of the finest horror films ever made. Terrifying with the power of horrid suggestion, The Haunting triggers more fear than a million crass monster movies ever could. You can watch the original on the Alluc website here. I suggest you do so as soon as time permits.
City of the Dead, meanwhile, is unloved enough to be sitting on Youtube without fear of copyright claims. A highly atmospheric Christopher Lee vehicle, CotD was cursed by desperately unlucky similarities to one of cinemas all time classics, released at much the same time. As a result, contemporary audiences dismissed it as a shameless rip off. In retrospect, the closeness of the two films release dates make that impossible. Im not going to tell you which film it was supposedly copying, because its kind of a spoiler if you know. Youll probably be able to work it out when you watch it both films use a technique thats still too shocking to be regularly used to this day.
If scenes feel at all familiar, it might be because Iron Maiden stole visuals from the film for the video to their vaguely cack 90s chart topper Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter. Dont let that put you off – City of the Dead a minor forgotten classic. Dyall plays his evil bastard role with relish, Patricia Jessel is perfect as the villainous coven leader, and little known starlet Venetia Stevenson sparkles**. Make your own mind up:
And finally in my little appreciation of Valentine Dyall, Ive managed to unearth one of his radio shows a reading of the Edgar Allen Poe standard The Pit & The Pendulum. Sure enough, there is Dyall introducing affairs as the Man in Black, a sonorous, forgotten voice that sparked countless troubled dreams.
*On a tangent, the young Bob Dylan was an avid Suspense fan, as he testifies in his autobiography, suggesting he picked up some of his story telling technique from the shows twists and cliff hangers.
** heres a great piece of trivia many years after CotD, Venetia Stevenson had a daughter with Don Everly of the Everly Brothers, This daughter, Erin Everly, went on to marry Axl Rose, becoming the inspiration for the Guns N Roses track Sweet Child O Mine. Pointless to know, I know, but it tickled me still.