Thursday, 19 March 2015
Do Not Disturb (1991)
Do Not Disturb was a Screen Two drama from 1991 written by the grandly named Timberlake Wertenbaker. It plays on the traditions of classic British ghost stories - most notably those of MR James - which warn protagonists of the dangers inherent in raking up the past.
It stars Frances Barber and Peter Capaldi as a married couple, Jenny and Bruce Coldfield, who have laid on a tour of Norfolk for a party of enthusiasts for a long dead local ghost story writer, Eleanor Mort. The story is approached as a series of flashbacks with the linking device of direct to camera narration by an ashen looking Barber which suggests something went terribly wrong on the trip.
The group of literary enthusiasts are a rag tag international bunch who only have their love for the author in common. Key among them - given the story's theme of disturbing the past - is the couple from Zimbabwe; the wife seems troubled by her experience of living in what was, for her, Rhodesia, whilst the husband is a treasure seeking obsessive always equipped with his metal detector. There's also a quiet working class Scotsman (Clive Russell doing his usual gentle giant turn) an irritating American, an alluring and intelligent French professor who attracts Capaldi's eye and a haunted young man who Barber commits an almost maternal infidelity with, commencing the breakdown of their marriage.
It's a deeply oblique headscratcher of a film that willfully keeps its secrets tantalisingly hidden. What exactly happened to Capaldi when he, and his alcoholic father visited the village and the small island at low tide as a child? Wertenbaker refuses to elaborate and, ultimately, as the tragedy that now haunts Barber reveals itself we can only surmise that the ghost of Eleanor Mont protects her secrets from beyond the grave. The exact truth we can only speculate upon.
As a result Do Not Disturb remains too frustrating to truly enjoy and not as good as the traditional ghost stories it emulates and is influenced by. It's real strength perhaps lies in its atmospheric depiction of Norfolk's bleakly beautiful charms; the shimmering forbidding tides, the sun on the dirt tracks and the flatlands give great ambiance to a tale full of sleight of hand, curiosity and mystery.
Do Not Disturb is also available to view on YouTube, like much of Capaldi's earlier work now, so tweeny Doctor Who fans who had never heard of him until he played their hero can irritatingly squee to their hearts content at his younger self and his shock of hair.
To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here