Armchair Thriller, Volume 4: 'Dying Day' (TV)
R2 - United Kingdom - Network
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (21st April 2008).
The Show

Synopsis:
Antony Skipling (Ian McKellen) is a creature of habit: each day, he drives his moped to the train station and, via train, commutes to London. Like most commuters, he avoids unnecessary conversation and seeks solace in his copy of The Daily Telegraph. However, one day he finds himself in a carriage with an eccentric man named Foster.

Foster (David Howey) introduces himself as a ‘natural historian’ and encourages Skipling to listen to some recordings he has made on a cassette. One of the recordings has been made in a pub in Berkshire and seems to contain nothing more than the sound of the patrons’ idle chatter.

Foster leaves the train in a hurry, almost missing his stop, and leaves behind the audio cassette. Skipling takes it home and listens to it on his music centre. Shockingly, Skipling seems to hear the voices of two men who seem to be planning to murder Skipling on the 28th of February.

Concerned for his life, Skipling informs the police, but when he plays back the cassette for a police sergeant he finds that it contains nothing more than ambient noise from the pub: the voices have disappeared. The police advise Skipling to seek some sort of medical help, and Skipling’s doctor suggests that he may need to see a psychiatrist or ‘spend some time in a […] private nursing home’, and it is revealed that following his separation from his ex-wife Skipling had a breakdown and sought help from The Samaritans. However, Skipling is adamant that he did not imagine the voices and seeks to uncover the truth about the audio cassette.


Critique:
The series Armchair Thriller ran from 1978 to 1980 and was an offshoot of ITV’s well-known Armchair Theatre strand, which began in 1956 but was dropped in 1968—only to be revived in 1974 (as Armchair Cinema) and again in 1978 (as Armchair Thriller). The show had a near-iconic and effectively eerie titles sequence, which featured a shadow falling across an armchair, combined with music from Roxy Music’s Andy MacKay. The ‘armchair thrillers’ themselves were spread over either four or six episodes of around twenty-five minutes in length; they were often densely-plotted exercises in suspense adapted from the work of writers like Patricia Highsmith (the six-part ‘A Dog’s Ransom’, which has already been released on DVD by Network). Sometimes the series trod into the realm of horror fiction; and on this note, hopefully Network will get round to releasing the 1978 story ‘Quiet as a Nun’, which contains one of the most memorably terrifying moments in the series—when, at the climax of episode three, Jemima Shore ascends the stairs to discover the faceless Black Nun waiting for her.

There’s a longstanding joke about the series, which says that it acquired its name because the budget of each story was no more than the cost of an armchair. There’s a certain truth to that joke, because the low-budget nature of the show is very evident, but the real appeal of this series was in some of the writing and the performances.

Happily, the four-part story ‘Dying Day’ is an example of an Armchair Thriller story where good writing collides with a very good central performance (from Sir Ian McKellen, no less). The script is by John Bowen, a writer who has produced work for a variety of television programmes. Bowen’s other work includes one of only three surviving episodes of the horror anthology series Dead of Night (1972), ‘A Woman Sobbing’, and the short-lived anti-establishment series The Guardians (1971), which is sometimes compared to the iconic 1967 series The Prisoner. Bowen’s most recent work has been for the lighthearted crime series Hetty Wainthrop Investigates (1996-1998). Bowen also penned both one of the strongest of the BBC’s classic, intermittent series Ghost Stories For Christmas (the 1974 adaptation of M. R. James’ story ‘The Treasure of Abbott Thomas’) and one of the most frustrating episodes from that series of programmes, the concluding story ‘The Ice House’ (1978). ‘The Ice House’ is frustrating because it wanders around in circles, refusing to answer any of the questions that it raises: whilst ambiguity has its value and can carry significant dramatic weight, ‘The Ice House’ is needlessly (and frustratingly) obscure.

‘Dying Day’ has a similar problem, in that during the third episode (which after two taut introductory episodes, seems to amp up the humour and mostly does little more than tread water), it seems that the story loses its sense of direction: is Skipling going slightly mad, or is there a conspiracy to murder him? Until very late in the story, Bowen’s script drags out this question, much like the current American television series Lost (2004- ) seems to tentatively offer its audience answers before withdrawing them again and renewing the viewers’ uncertainty about the mystery. This can be very wearying and frustrating for a viewer, but happily in the fourth episode Bowen provides answers to those questions that need answering but still retains some of the ambiguity that is healthy within good drama.

The Armchair Thrillers were often based on ‘what if…?’ scenarios, and in ‘Dying Day’ the question is ‘what if you overheard two people planning your murder, to take place on a very specific date, but were discredited and dismissed as an eccentric by those in power?’ It’s a fascinating idea, and McKellen is great in the role of Skipling, an ambiguous character who may be in the grip of a conspiracy or who could simply be paranoid.

From the outset, Skipling is a strange character who is under suspicion, both from the other characters and from the audience. Skipling is first seen being interviewed by the police, and the interview is cross-cut with Skipling’s daily routine. However, at this point we have no idea why Skipling is being interviewed, and we have no idea whether the police are interviewing him as a witness, a complainant or a suspect. Nevertheless, we learn that Skipling is a creature of almost obsessive habits, describing his daily journey to work in a great deal of detail. He is fastidious and frugal, declaring at one point that ‘If I’m going to spend money, it has to be on something important’. Skipling is also deliberately aloof, stating that each day, on his journey to London he knows ‘most of the other people by sight, but I do not speak to them: that might lead to intimacy. I smile but never speak. I read my Telegraph’. Routine is important to this man, and when his daily routine is shattered by the intrusion of the over-friendly and happy-go-lucky Foster, it’s the beginning of a major disruption to Skipling’s life. Skipling himself is an eccentric character, and when it is revealed that he experienced some emotional problems after his separation from his wife Doris (Gwyneth Powell), the other characters begin to doubt him even more—and so do the audience.

The script is also witty and self-reflexive. There’s a sense that Berkshire is populated by eccentrics, from Foster (with his audio recordings of pubs and amplified sounds of cabbage white butterflies emerging from their pupa) to Doris’ new husband, Mountjoy, a reclusive and apparently powerful businessman with a prominent wig, a love of gadgets and an odd, affected accent (which Skipling describes as 'colourless'): Mountjoy’s agent Sellars (Peter Childs) claims that Mountjoy may be Armenian, but he’s not sure. In the third and fourth episodes, there is an ongoing joke when Doris keeps confusing Howard Hughes with Howard Hawks, only to react with anger when Skipling corrects her—and then Skipling makes the same mistake himself. Skipling also directly compares himself to King Lear, stating to Doris that ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport’. Doris mocks her ex-husband’s pomposity, declaring ‘Because something’s in Shakespeare, that doesn’t make it true. “A” Level English has been your downfall’. Several dialogue exchanges also demonstrate a self-reflexivity in the writing, an awareness of the conventions of the genre. When Skipling discusses his predicament with a colleague, Lane (David Ryall), Lane asks him if he’s writing a thriller, asserting that ‘People don’t read thrillers these days: they watch television’. Lane tells Skipling that ‘If people in thrillers went to the police straight off, there would be no story’, and of course in the next scene Skipling goes to the police, only to find himself the object of ridicule and derision when the tape doesn’t contain the voices he claims it does.

In between, there is also a subtle criticism of power (which is unsurprising, considering some of Bowen’s other work, particularly the anti-establishment series The Guardians): even if Skipling is an eccentric, the police and other authority figures do nothing to help him and in fact mock him to his face. Additionally, Mountjoy seems to be a harmless old eccentric, but Lane suggests that Mountjoy’s legitimate businesses are simply ‘fronts’ for illicit dealings. As with much British television of this period, the social criticism is buried but still potent.

'Dying Day' is possibly the best story from the second series of Armchair Thriller; and along with the first series stories 'A Dog's Ransom' and 'Quiet as a Nun', 'Dying Day' is probably the most fondly-remembered story from the Armchair Thriller strand as a whole. Much of this is down the combination of McKellen's central performance as the put-upon Mr Skipling with Bowen's strong script and its intriguing central premise.


‘Dying Day’ was originally screened between the 12th and 21st of February, 1980; the second story from the second series, it was shown on American television as part of PBS’ Mystery! series, with an introduction by Vincent Price.

This is the fourth volume in Network’s releases of the Armchair Thriller stories; it is due to be released on the 5th of May, alongside volume three, ‘The Victim’, which was the opening story of the second series. Network have previously released two stories from the first series, ‘A Dog’s Ransom’ and ‘Rachel in Danger’.

Video

As with many British television shows of this vintage, ‘Dying Day’ was shot on both film and video: film was used for the location work, and the in-studio footage was shot on videotape. The image on Network’s DVD is surprisingly clean.

The four episodes are contained on a single disc.

Episode Breakdown:
1. 'Mr. Skipling is Sentenced to Death' (25:32)
2. 'Mr. Skipling Finds a Friend' (25:46)
3. 'Mr. Skipling Fights Back' (25:47)
4. 'Mr. Skipling's Day of Reckoning' (25:40)

Audio

The disc comes with a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack. The audio track is problem-free, although there are some scenes in which the occasional line of dialogue is buried under ambient sound—but this is a problem with the production, rather than with Network’s DVD release. Subtitles would have helped with this issue, but sadly as with Network’s other releases this DVD contains no subtitles.

Extras

None whatsoever. You may ask, with television writing this good, who needs ‘em? However, an interview with Bowen would have been ideal, or perhaps some contextual material (either text-based or audio-visual) providing an overview of the Armchair Thriller strand would have proved interesting for viewers who are new to the series.

Overall

In sum, ‘Dying Day’ is a very good example of the Armchair Thriller strand, and it is probably the strongest story from the show's second series. It’s obvious that like most of the Armchair Thriller stories, ‘Dying Day’ was filmed on a relatively small budget, and as a result the first episode feels a little ‘stagey’—but the drama soon ‘opens up’ once Skipling listens to the cassette. However, as noted above the strengths of the Armchair Thriller stories lie in the writing and performances. The story may have worked better as a three-parter (the third episode in particular feels a little ‘flabby’), but for the most part ‘Dying Day’ is a suspenseful hour-and-forty-minutes of television. If you’re a fan of classic British television, Network's DVD release is well-worth purchasing.



For more information, please visit the homepage of Network DVD.

The Show: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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