1976 was a good year for anyone who loved well-crafted supernatural anthology shows. I.T.V. gave the world Nigel Kneale's 'Beasts', while B.B.C.-2 had 'The Mind Beyond', a six-part series produced by Irene Shubik, the driving force behind the legendary science fiction series 'Out Of The Unknown'.
The first edition was 'Meriel, The Ghost Girl' by David Halliwell. It begins when George Livingston ( the wonderful and much-missed Donald Pleasence ), a psychical investigator, is asked to attend a séance in Cricklewood. One of the circle's number, a rich French woman, claims to have received visitations from the ghost of her late daughter Meriel, who was only seven when she died.
To preserve their anonymity, the circle give themselves fake names such as 'Miss Brown and 'Mr.Green' etc. Livingston insists on searching the room where the séance is to take place, then subjects the members of the circle to a body search. Satisfied, he allows the séance to proceed.
The room goes dark and cold. The only sound to be heard is the deep breathing of the circle's members. Sensing a presence at his shoulder, Livingston reaches out and touches the naked body of a living, breathing child. Meriel has arrived.
He asks her several questions, but the only one she replies to is "Do you love your mother?". She says yes. Meriel's mother bursts into tears. Suddenly, the ghost girl is gone.
Unable to rationalise what he has seen, Livingston describes the incident in his book 'Annals Of A Psychical Investigator'.
Years later, he dies of bronchial pneumonia but the mystery of Meriel refuses to die with him. Others take up the case. The first of these is Sam Nicholls ( John Bluthal ), a brash American with a fondness for trench coats and cigars. This poor man's Sam Spade begins to check on the authenticity of the book's details but on failing to find any concrete evidence concludes that Livingstone made the whole thing up in order to boost sales.
Robina Oliver ( Janet Street-Porter...yes, THAT Janet Street-Porter ) is not so sure and, after searching Cricklewood, comes across a house identical to the one Livingstone described. The trail takes her to Miss Furniss ( Jane Hayden ) who claims to have been Meriel. She says she faked the apparition at the request of her parents who wanted to take the French woman for an expensive ride. Robina is sceptical. How can a fourteen year old girl realistically impersonate a seven year old? Robina is genuinely convinced that Meriel existed.
The last investigator, Dr.Delane ( Charles Keating ), has an alternative view of the case. He thinks that she was nothing more than a mass hallucination.
So what we have is a dramatised version of the 'Meriel' incident, followed by three widely differing interpretations. Of these the Street-Porter one is the most interesting, mainly because its easy to believe Miss Furniss' claims that the whole thing was faked. Remember that 'Sherlock Holmes' creator Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle was fooled by some photos of 'fairies' he once saw. Street-Porter cannot act to save her life, but thankfully she is only required to be herself. By contrast the Bluthal sequence borders on farce, with the actor behaving as though he has wandered straight off the set of Spike Milligan's 'Q' series.
The opening twenty or so minutes with Pleasence are excellent, and the séance scene registers nine out of ten on the 'creep-o-meter'. When the other investigators take over it loses momentum slightly, but the theories put forward are nonetheless fascinating. The play ends with no real conclusion, the viewers are instead invited to make up their own minds. If it ever comes out on D.V.D., I reasonably expect the scene in which Livingston encounters Meriel to be cut.
This intriguing ghost story may not scare the pants off you, but it will certainly make you think.
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