Archive for the ‘cult tv’ Category

The Haunting, director Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, is arguably my favourite film, one I’ve watched numerous times and one I always seem to get something new out of, but it was a long time until I read the source novel. A few years ago saw the release of Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House tv miniseries on Netflix. In the past nine months I’ve re-watched both the film and the tv series, and I’ve also reread Jackson’s novel, so it seemed a good time to examine all three.

This will be a fairly deep dive, so I will go into spoilerific detail. If you haven’t read/seen any of these and you’re worried about finding out how they end, maybe look away now, but if you’re a fan, or maybe if you don’t mind spoilers, why not take a trip with me to Hill House, which has stood for eighty years, and might stand for eighty more…

 

The Novel. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson (1959)

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Given its reputation as a true classic of literature, it is perhaps surprising that I’m not as enamoured of the source novel as many are. In part I think it’s the fact that I came to the party late, as it were, reading the book many years (and many repeat viewings) after seeing the film, which means there’s a lot that’s fixed in my mind, my image of the central characters for one. There’s also Jackson’s prose, which is at times superb and at others a little cold. The book isn’t that old yet feels a trifle old fashioned. That said you can’t argue with that opening paragraph:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Just reading that last line makes me shudder.

The original story is slightly different than the film that followed. There’s no Dr Markway, distinguished and handsome potential love interest here, Dr Montague is a different figure altogether, only ever paternal, and Nell has no eyes for him, only for Luke but otherwise the dynamic fans of the film are familiar with is the same. Four intrepid investigators. The academic, the rich layabout, the bohemian extrovert and the guilt-ridden introvert.

The other big difference is that Jackson’s tale sprawls beyond the house, and many of the spookier elements take place outside. In particular Nell and Theo coming across a (clearly ghostly) family picnic is shudderingly written, most particularly because Jackson never tells us what is so wrong with it that prompts the pair to run, and for Theo to tell Nell not to look back. Later still Nell walks into the undergrowth believing Theo and Luke are following, only they aren’t… Brrr!!!

It seems likely there is a ghostly presence at Hill House in the novel. It isn’t impossible that it’s all Eleanor’s doing, her grief and guilt magnifying her psychic powers but I think even Jackson made it clear there’s something spooky afoot. The sense of dread regarding Nell as the book progresses has a horrible inevitability about it as well.

The one misstep I think, is the arrival of Mrs Montague and her curious companion. She’s too broad and overbearing and their inclusion does feel a bit jarring.

One can’t quibble with the story, and some truly wonderful prose however, and if it wasn’t for the novel, we wouldn’t have got…

The Film. The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise (1963)

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It’s sometimes incredible to consider just how eclectic Wise’s career was. He directed everything, from musicals (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) to science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek the Motion Picture) as well as Westerns, war movies, thrillers and of course horror (The Curse of the Cat People, The Haunting.) He directed his first film in 1944 and his last in 2000. Some have called him a journeyman, but I think that’s unfair, and The Haunting just shows how good he was. A technically perfect film featuring four wonderful performances and inventive camerawork to instil fear without ever really showing us anything.

Ostensibly it follows the beats of the novel, with a group of four intrepid researchers travelling to Hill House, although there are some changes. Dr Montague is replaced by Dr Markway, and it’s Markway rather than Luke who provides us with Nell’s unobtainable love interest, and while Mrs Markway does show up, she isn’t remotely as annoying, and doesn’t come complete with her own sidekick in this version.

Perhaps the biggest change is that Wise dispenses with the garden scenes, and whilst a few scenes take place outside—most notably the finale—for the most part he eschews the grounds in favour of bottling his characters up inside of Hill House. This is a great stylistic choice, emphasising the claustrophobia of the story, implying our heroes have been swallowed whole by the vile house that Hugh Crain built, and suggesting there’s no escape.

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The choice to film in black and white is another masterstroke. The sets are superb, with an oppressive rococo style and claustrophobic feel. The statues and the library are wonderful. Wise utilised a revolutionary amorphic camera that was so new he had to sign an understanding that the lens was imperfect. Wise and his cinematographer keep the camera moving and utilise crazy angles, skewed shots and weird lenses—as well as utilising mirrors— to give the impression of an insane house that’s always watching, always waiting.

And of course, perhaps the best decision Wise made was to rely on unseen terrors, with the exception of curious shadows (the face in the grill) and of course the breathing door. There are sounds as well of course, the banging, and the ghostly voices of Hugh Crain and the distressed children, but for the most part he relied upon his actor’s reactions to the house, the most famous of course being Nell’s “But whose hand was I holding?”

Which brings us onto the actors. Setting aside Lois Maxwell (yes Moneypenny!) as Mrs Markway and Valentine Dyall and Rosalie Crutchley as the wonderfully creepy Mr and Mrs Dudley, and a few other minor players, this film revolves around the four leads who play off one another perfectly.

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As Nell, Julie Harris is superb (why wasn’t she Oscar nominated?) fragile and frequently on the edge of hysteria, she’s a jittery mess of anxieties and guilt, a child in the body of a grown woman. With every tic and tremor Harris speaks volumes. By all accounts she was suffering with depression during filming, and isolated herself from the others further enhancing the character’s disconnection. She’s a pitiful, utterly empathetic character and you can’t help but feel for her.

As Theo, Claire Bloom is the polar opposite of Nell, experienced, confident and quite patently gay, even if it’s never explicitly stated, and her relationship with Nell is incredibly complex. At times friends, at times almost sisters, at times perhaps something more, is she interested in Nell? Theo clearly cares about Nell, yet can’t help sniping at her. It’s Theo after all who suggests Eleanor might be the one who wrote her name on the wall, and her throwaway “like sisters” line is heavy with meaning given we know how fractious Nell’s relationship with her own sister is. In weaker hands the relationship could have been flat and predictable, yet instead it’s vibrant, testament to Bloom and Harris’ acting. All the more amazing since they didn’t speak during the filming (though reconciled later).

As Markway Richard Johnson is cool, calm and collected, and quite debonair (in a slightly stuffy academic kinda way). Of the four his performance is the one that feels a little false at times, especially in the tenser segments, a little more theatrical should we say. I’m being harsh, because he’s still very good and as with the others it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Finally we have former child star Russ Tamblyn as Luke. Young , hip and flippant it’s a performance that could have gone over the edge but Tamblyn carries it off perfectly , and in many ways he’s the reason the film works, going to sceptic to  believer over the course of the story. He’s the one after all who at the end says the house should be burned down and the ground sown with salt. He’s wonderful in this, playing off each of the others perfectly. And of course this won’t be the last time Tamblyn crosses paths with Hill House….

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A superb film, a textbook example of creating tension without resorting to special effects. Claustrophobic and, pardon the pun, haunting, with wonderful characters at its heart, and that’s perhaps one of the main reasons it succeeds. Even if nothing supernatural happened at Hill House, you’d still enjoy watching these four characters interact. Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve watched this so many times they almost feel like old friends, and Nell’s death still hurts every time.

Anyway, let’s shift forward fifty odd—very odd—years to…

The TV series. The Haunting of Hill House, created and directed by Mike Flanagan (2018)

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The arrival onto the scene of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime has seen a whole slew of new TV shows, and when  it was announced that a 10 part series based on Jackson’s novel was in the works I was concerned, mainly off the back of the truly atrocious 1999 remake of The Haunting, an exemplar for how not to remake a classic that misunderstood everything about the story and which wastes a decent cast by surrounding them with terrible CGI, overexaggerating the plot, and by having Catherine Zeta-Jones play Theo with all the subtlety of a punch to the face. I saw it once at the cinema and I never plan to see it again.

But enough about 1999’s exercise in how not to make a Hill House story, let’s talk about 2018’s exercise in how to do things properly, because Flanagan’s series is really top drawer storytelling, pretty much every episode scared me at some point and at least two of them are stone cold classics. Sure, it all kinda falls apart at the end but I can forgive it because the journey getting there is So. Damn. Good.

It’d be wrong to say there’s no nuance in the story, but from the perspective of the supernatural it’s clearly real. There isn’t even the hint that what’s going on is in characters’ heads. And we see most of the horror full on, albeit this is done far more effectively than the 1999 film managed. Flanagan also takes liberties, lifting pieces of the story and rearranging them, or in many cases rewriting them completely, and yet the essence of the story and the more familiar characters remain.

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The story is set in two timeframes. 1992 and 2018, with different actors playing child and adult versions of the Crain children, and in fact Hugh Crain himself. Back in 1992 the Crain family were renovating Hill House, until tragedy struck, a tragedy that left questions over what, exactly happened there, and a tragedy that’s informed each character’s life since. The eldest son Steven (Michael Huisman in the present day) used a fictional account of what happened to springboard his writing career, and now makes a living writing true ghost books. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is ostensibly the most together of the Crain children, and she runs a mortuary. Living rent free in a guest house on her property is Theo (Kate Siegel) who works as a child psychologist. A sensitive, she wears gloves most of the time to keep her curse at bay, and has distanced herself from any emotional attachments.

This leaves the youngest, and perhaps most damaged Crain children. Twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) a man with a history of substance abuse, and Nell (Victoria Pedretti) haunted by sleep paralysis and recurring imagines of a particularly terrifying spectre.

There’s Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton as the past and present versions of Hugh, and Carla Gugino as Olivia, the children’s mother.

Like all the best horror Flanagan’s tale is about something beyond scaring people. This isn’t some soulless fairground attraction, it’s a tale of guilt and loss and redemption, and above all else love and family. Even if there weren’t a possessed house involved, it’d be interesting due to the writing, the direction and the cast.

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The Crain children think they’ve moved on with their lives, but the death of one of them will prove that, in many ways, they never left Hill House. The interweaving of timelines is exquisitely done, and not only between 1992 and 2018, even within the distinct timelines the story shifts back and forth as we see the same event from different characters’ perspectives.

In terms of frights there are some fantastic jump scares (a couple in particular had me literally screaming, even second time around when I knew they were coming) but beyond this there’s a palpable sense of dread, and many of the scares take their time, tension building as you wait for what you know is coming—take little Luke hiding under his bed as footsteps approach!!

By all accounts there are dozens of spectres in some scenes, hidden away in the shadows, though even on a second viewing I only spotted a couple of them. Two of the ghosts at the forefront are the most effective however. The tall man who menaces Luke (and there’s a Luke centric episode in the present that I’m sure Flanagan loaded with really tall extras so the ghost is subconsciously always on our minds) and the Bent Neck Lady who terrified Nell both as a child and an adult.

Which brings me to those two episodes. Episode 5 is named the Bent Neck Lady, a Nell focused episode that shows the full nightmare she experiences as she’s haunted by the titular phantom. It starts out utterly terrifying, but eventually morphs into something utterly heart-breaking. If you thought Nell’s fate in the book and the film were tragic you ain’t seen nothing yet, and by the end I was in pieces. One of the best episodes of television ever, in my not so humble opinion, and for a ghost story something that plays with time better than 99% of actual time travel sci-fi.

And then we get episode 6. Two Storms. A story that alternates between two thunderstorms, one in 1992 which the Crain family experienced in Hill House, the other in 2018 the night before Nell’s funeral as the family reconvene in the funeral home to talk about their sister, and old wounds will be reopened. The 1992 stuff is eerie, especially when one of the children goes missing, but it’s in the present day that the episode excels. The direction and cinematography, the script and the actors all combine to create (pardon the pun) a perfect storm of grief and anger captured in fluid tracking shots that show us spectres the family can’t see, and intercut between 2018 and 1992 seamlessly. It’s a heartrending episode where every single character’s wounds are raw. Again, strip out the horror and it’d still work.

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There are so many other things I could mention; the return of Russ Tamblyn in a cameo as Nell’s psychiatrist, the cup of stars (missing from the film),  Luke’s imaginary friend who it turns out is anything but ghostly, the character names (Shirley for Shirley Jackson, Steven for King etc), the secret of the red room that’s been staring us in the face the whole time, the clock repairman, Mr Smiley Face, the elevation of the Dudley’s beyond just creepy two dimensional plot points…and of course the fact that the five Crain siblings represent the stages of grief: Steve is denial, Shirley is anger, Theo is bargaining, Luke is depression, and Nell is acceptance.

Nothing is ever perfect, and maybe it could have been an episode or two shorter, and maybe it does all wrap up a little too neatly in the end, and yes, Oliva as the crazy woman who wants to kill her kids in order to save them isn’t a great trope, but any flaws are minor, and if a second viewing taught me one thing, it’s this, much like the film, The Haunting of Hill House is a series I will return to again and again because I think there’ll always be something new to take from the story, and much as with The Haunting these are characters I enjoy spending time with, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what Flanagan does with The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on The Turn of the Screw.

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In the final analysis this is a tale that’s stood the test of time for over sixty years, and might stand for sixty more, testament to the strength of Jackson’s original story. It’s been remade and reimagined, and even survived Jan de Bont and Liam Neeson! Nobody’s tearing this story down and sowing the ground with salt in a hurry!

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My childhood took place during the 1970s and 1980s, which gives you a rough idea how old I am. As a child I had no smartphone, no laptop. There was no internet, or at least no internet as we understand it and certainly not one an ordinary person could access, and I can still recall such milestones as us getting our first telephone, our first colour TV and our first VCR.

But it wasn’t all bad, I had something the kids of today can only dream of, because I lived under the shadow of global nuclear war.

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The Cold War had been chilling for decades, and the West and the Soviet Union had enough nuclear weapons pointed at each other to destroy the planet multiple times over. Growing up in such an environment is it any wonder I became a little obsessed with the end of the world?

At the time there was a plethora of apocalyptic fiction; books, comics, TV shows, films…and whilst some of these were harsh, utterly realistic portrayals of the potential for atomic Armageddon (see the BBC’s Threads and America’s The Day After for further detail) many of them were, shall we say, slightly more action packed.

They shared many elements however, the hero would be a rugged type, usually an ex-soldier, and he’d know how to handle himself in a fight; with his bare hands, with a knife or, most usually, with a large arrange of firearms. There’d be bad guys aplenty, and they usually rode motorcycles, as if a huge army of evil Hell’s Angels had just been waiting for the end of the world so they could take over.

There’d be women, and they’d be tough too, but also sexy of course. And, despite huge amounts of radiation in the atmosphere, the hero would suffer no major health problems.

Of course it wasn’t all about nuclear war. On the BBC John Duttine unwrapped the bandages from his eyes to discovered a comet had made most people blind, and man eating planets ruled in an adaptation of Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Luckily Duttine’s Bill could still see, despite the blinding yellow jumpsuit worn by co-star Emma Relph. A comet was similarly to blame for wiping out most of humanity (and turning large numbers of the survivors into zombies) in the superbly schlocky Night of the Comet.

Meanwhile Charlton Heston had to fight albino psychos as the result of biological warfare in The Omega Man, a film that had a huge impact on me, and a favourite film of me and my dad while I was growing up (and I still love it today.)

I still recall borrowing the Waste World novels from the library, and over the years I’ve acquired three of them (still missing number 2 which is a shame as I remember that one being quite good). These novels featured Matt Chance (these guys are never called Nigel or Tarquin) who was tagged as ‘the ultimate survivor’ although he had nothing on John Rourke, the titular hero of The Survivalist novels that I religiously collected during my teens and early twenties. He really was the ultimate survivor, hell he even had his own secret bunker hidden inside a mountain! I still own my collection of Survivalist novels, though I only got up to the mid-twenties, I believe they carried on but the later ones never showed up in the UK. It’s probably just as well, by book 10 Rourke and his family had been catapulted centuries into the future and by the later books he was battling the denizens of an underwater city, as well as future Nazis and Commies!

Sure they were a touch on the NRA side of things, but they were somewhat less right wing than a lot of similar books out there, and a touch more character driven, even going so far as to feature a post-apocalyptic love triangle between Rourke, his estranged wife and a Russian spy who probably should have been in a Bond film. In fact book 9 is effectively a Bond film, and as I recall an action packed cracker—plus it featured a Doctor Who joke which was somewhat surreal!

Of course I eventually graduated onto more substantial literary fare, and another book that had a big impact on me was James Herbert’s Domain, the third book in his Rats trilogy (technically I suppose there’s a fourth but it’s a graphic novel) which saw WW3 take place, London get levelled, and a group of survivors playing tag with man-eating rats inside underground bunkers. It’s Herbert at his grim and gory best.

It’s perhaps not surprising that some of my first forays into writing involved similar fare. One of the first things I recall getting down on paper was a story that bore so many similarities to The Omega Man that it was essentially just a rip off! I only wrote a couple of pages of that one, but my next effort was much longer, and probably a tad more original, but it was just a British take on Waste World/The Survivalist, featuring a rugged teenage hero with a penchant for automatic weapons and a pretty girlfriend and, yeah, I know: Can you say Mary Sue?

So of course it was logical that my first novel, City of Caves, would be a post-apocalyptic story, and my latest, Darker Times, also deals with the end of the world.

But what is it that I, and so many others, find so fascinating about the apocalypse? Well as with any genre I think there are myriad reasons. Firstly there’s a certain cantharis to dealing with the end of the world in fiction. In the 70s and 80s nuclear war was a real possibility, and nowadays there’s still the fear of terrorism, pandemics, asteroid collision, climate change etc. etc. Post-apocalyptic fiction allows us to face these terrors, knowing they won’t really happen (we hope) but that if they did the indomitable human spirit would survive. Stories like The Day of the Triffids, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, ITV miniseries The Last Train and a plethora of others don’t feature rugged action heroes, they feature everyday people in extraordinary circumstances, and just as in horror, seeing people survive, or at least go down valiantly fighting, against extranormal odds makes our own trials seem less onerous.

There’s also a very clear libertarian angle at play, the end of civilisation doesn’t have to mean the end of civilisation, it can be more clearly seen as a wiping of the slate, ready for a new kind of world to emerge. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that you’ve got a dead end job, that your relationship are, to quote The Rembrandts, “DOA”, that you’ve never followed your dreams…in the aftermath of Armageddon anyone can be a hero (or a villain), all you need is a fast car and a big gun (though frankly in the event of the end of days, tempting though it will be to nab a Porsche, I’ll probably go for something that gets more miles to the gallon) and you can ride around like it’s the Wild West and you’re some kind of bastard love child of Mad Max and Wyatt Earp.

And after Doomsday there’ll be no taxes, no debts, no worries (apart from, you know, starvation, thirst, infectious diseases, rapists, cannibals, rapist cannibals and the ever present worry about what happens if your appendix bursts when there’s no longer an A&E—in your face suckers I had mine out decades ago) and whether your idea of a new world is a grungy motorcycle gang, a medieval fortress, or something much more middle class and John Wyndham’esqe that involves rational conversations about how many babies we’ll need to have, your dreams can come true.

Of course these days nobody’s scared of nuclear war anymore, it’s all about the zombie apocalypse, but at least you no longer need to worry about the guy who looks like a Hell’s Angel ‘cos he’s probably one of the good guys!

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Growing up in the seventies and eighties there was no such thing as iPlayer, no DVD boxsets or Netflix, so unless you videoed something off the telly at the time, or it got a VHS release, oft times you’d see something when it aired, and that would be that.

Coming back to things later in life can be a dangerous thing, for every TV show that I’ve found I love just as much—maybe even more— now (exhibit 1 m’lud: Blakes 7) there’s one that, in hindsight, is a touch embarrassing (exhibit 2 m’lud: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.)

When The One Game aired in the summer of 1988 I was seventeen, and over the course of four weeks it held me spellbound. TV shows came and TV shows went, and there are probably miniseries that I watched that you could show me footage of me watching and I still wouldn’t remember them, but The One Game stuck in my mind, The One Game was something I never forgot, and even though I wouldn’t see it again until the 21st Century every so often something would spark in my mind and I’d be reminded of the quirky thriller I’d loved. Most pertinently this happened when I watched David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game, which parallels The One Game so much (even down to the ‘it was all for your own good’ ending) that I couldn’t help wondering if anyone got sued!

When The One Game was finally released on DVD I eagerly purchased it, but would it be Blakes 7 or Buck Rogers? Well clearly since I’m still eager to talk about it a decade after buying the DVD it’s probably pretty obvious that it is something I love just as much today, probably more, than I did back in the day.

The setup is thus:

Nicholas Thorne (Stephen Dillane) is the very epitome of a yuppie, young and arrogant he’s also wealthy courtesy of his company Sorcerer, which makes games. During the course of one bank holiday weekend however he’ll potentially lose everything. First someone steals over two million pounds from the company accounts, bypassing supposedly fool proof passwords, and then Nick watches has is ex-wife Jenny (Philippa “Pippa” Haywood) is kidnapped.

The man behind this is Magnus (Patrick Malahide) Nick’s former business partner who Nick forced out of the company (and indirectly into an asylum). Magnus entices Nick into playing The One Game, a reality game that will see Nick battle skinheads, knights in armour, mysterious gunmen and even find him having to joust on a motorbike, but when you’re playing a reality game, where everyone you meet might be playing as well, can you trust anyone, or anything that you see?

Clearly this was a reworking of the Arthurian myth, and writer John Brown described it thusly: “What if Arthur said to Merlin after he’d helped set up the Kingdom, ‘Get lost. I don’t need you anymore.'”. Arthurian imagery is scattered throughout. A knife tossed into a canal, a woman’s beseeching hand rising up from a lake, knights in armour, sword fights and jousts, and with Nick playing Arthur and Magnus clearly Merlin. (I have seen it suggested that Magnus is Arthur and Nick Lancelot, and I can see where they’re coming from given Magnus’ clear affection for Jenny/Guinevere, however I don’t buy it, the story makes a lot more sense if Magnus is Merlin so that’s the interpretation I’m going with.)

This isn’t just a tale of revenge with an Arthurian twist however, because it becomes clear as the story progresses that Magnus’ intentions are not wholly vindictive towards his dear Nicholas, and in the end, after seemingly taking everything away from Nick, Magnus turns the tables and places himself solely in Nick’s hands in order to provide Nick with an opportunity for redemption.

The show has a wonderfully surreal tone, which was a refreshing call-back to the past in a decade not known for subtlety, but despite its fantastical elements it’s mostly grounded in reality.

In tone the show feels like The Avengers (as in John Steed not Iron Man!) and this vibe is never more obvious than when Nick finds himself being shot at in an abandoned village, a scene which riffs off ‘Target’, an episode of the New Avengers. The paranoia that pervades the story (who can I trust, who is playing the game?) also harkens back to The Prisoner, although Nick is far removed from McGoohan’s everyman Number 6.

Aside from a few magic tricks there isn’t anything that’s wholly impossible, but we still get some wonderfully surreal moments. From motorcycle jousting (yes I know George Romero did it first), to Magnus’ business meetings in an abandoned warehouse (complete with modern furniture and three piece suits) to the curious hobbies of Lord Maine (played with contemptible glee by former Quatermass Andrew Keir). When we first meet him he’s dressed as a cavalier about to refight Naseby and the next time he’s letting off some steam doing kendo! He isn’t in it much, but Keir’s enthusiasm and these playful asides elevate what could have been just stock evil 80s businessman into something more interesting.

There’s a definite contrast between the old and the new throughout the show, in the characters and the settings and you get a feeling of a Britain stuck somewhere between the industrial past and the technological future, with Magnus representing the old guard and Nick the future, although neither is portrayed as being an ideal, and if anything you get the impression each man was at his best when they were working together.

The 80s industrial decline is represented by decay, lots of industrial estates and abandoned warehouses where outsiders like the biker gang reside. This is juxtaposed with the luxury yuppie riverside flats and the increasing reliance on computers. And compare Sorcerer’s gleaming offices with the original shop the two men started the business in.

Although never more than oblique there’s a criticism of Thatcherism (and Nick is clearly a child of Thatcher, a self-made man interested solely in himself) inherent in the story. Nick is successful but not happy, and for all that Sorcerer is a success, it’s built on hollow foundations. Ephemeral numbers on a screen and, as Tom Darke, Sorcerer’s finance director, says, leased office space and rented furniture, the firm has no real assets beyond ideas; it’s almost prescient of the dotcom bubble bursting.

At the heart of the story are two great performances from Dillane and Malahide, and I make no apologies for the puntastic title of this posting given both men have recently been in Game of Thrones, Malahide with a relatively minor role as Balon Greyjoy (father of Theon Greyjoy, the unluckiest man in Westeros!) and Dillane with the much meatier role as Stannis Baratheon. Interestingly it’s not the first time the two men have worked together since The One Game as they were also both in the relatively disappointing Melissa George headed series Hunted a couple of years ago. Although I don’t believe they’ve shared scenes in either show.

Dillane was the less well known when The One Game was made, although around the same time he was in the excellent Christabel, but he plays Nick exceedingly well, balancing the arrogance and sneering disdain with a man haunted by past demons, and a man who, in his heart, is quite heroic. Yes his choice to play the game is born out of arrogance, his desire to beat Magnus, but he also genuinely wants to rescue Jenny. By contrast Malahide was very well known at the time, most famously as bumbling Detective Sergeant Chisolm in Minder, constantly being outwitted by George Cole and Dennis Waterman, so seeing him as Magnus was quite shock. He’s almost unrecognisable as the urbane, mystical and ever so slightly unhinged Magnus and for a man best known for playing incompetent coppers or vicious gangsters it shows what actors can do when given the chance.

The rest of the cast is mostly very good, although the least said about the guy playing the yuppie hacker in episode one the better. Kate McKenzie is perhaps the weakest of the main cast as Nick’s girlfriend Fay, but then she also has a bit of a thankless task because it is pretty obvious from very early on that Fay is more than she seems (even if you don’t make the connection between Fay and Morgan Le Fay, i.e. Morgana). It’s interesting watching in hindsight because Fay solves half the puzzles for Nick (in fairness Nick says early on that he’s terrible at games and puzzles).

David Mallinson fares better as Tom Darke, and his, on the surface, bland accountant manages to have quite a character arc, ending with, if not redemption, then at least a modicum of decency.

Magnus’ associates are played with gleeful nastiness by actors who are required to switch between personas at a moment’s thought, and do so very well, and finally Pippa Haywood is great as Jenny. Though terrified her character never gives up fighting, and even though she may have fallen out of love with Nick she clearly still has feelings for him, and even though she respects Magnus she isn’t afraid to tell him to his face that he’s a maniac, even when still his prisoner. It’s interesting to note as well that though we the audience know from the get go that Jenny is innocent, Nick has no such luxury, and so for a time her role in the One Game is uncertain from his perceptive.

In the end Magnus’ motives remain oblique. Is it about revenge tempered with a modicum of redemption for Nick, or does Magnus truly believe that Nick was a better man before money and guilt corrupted him? Is he trying to return a man he clearly loved like a brother to an earlier, simpler iteration of himself by stripping him of all the trappings of wealth and giving him the opportunity to right a terrible wrong that quite clearly was still haunting Nick, even before The One Game began? Just see Nick’s reaction upon seeing a lake when he and Fay go to dinner in the first episode, before he’s even aware any money is missing, let alone that Magnus has returned.

The One Game ends with some mysteries still unsolved, and with the final appearance of the Conjurer, the Beggar and the Comedian the inference that the Game isn’t over, and maybe never will be…

Yes it might look a little dated now, yes some of the puzzles are fairly simplistic, and some of the games seem a trifle tame (but then maybe that was the point) even though there are fatalities, but this is still a wonderful little show that remains intriguing and eminently watchable, a perfect blend of the gritty and the mystical, with a lilting and evocative Celtic soundtrack that makes even the most drab of locations appear magical.

Centred around two great performances perhaps the final thing I should say about how much The One Game means to me is that, as a writer, I’m still trying to come up with an idea just as original. If you can track it down please do so, just try and look beyond Tom Darkes’s giant glasses and computers that look like they might struggle to add two and two together and enjoy a story that’s one of a kind.