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Nothing Ever Happens Here

'The Cosy Catastrophe': horror and science fiction in the familiar English village.

 

It’s a well-worn trope in science fiction: supernatural or cosmic events intruding on the life of a familiar and mundane village or small town setting. This is a powerful way to examine human responses to extraordinary events, more so, perhaps, than staging them in space, the distant future or past, because of the heightened contrast between the conventional and the outré. Now, this theme isn’t unique to any particular country, but it’s particularly dominant in British science fiction and horror of the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps it’s the crashing and crushing rationality of Anglo-Saxon attitudes that lends the weird and alien a deeper impact in these settings. Or maybe it’s the unconscious resignation to the fact that post-war, post-imperial Britain was left out of the superpowers’ space race.

In literature, the template for this was set by John Wyndham’s 1957 novel Midwich Cuckoos, and its sympathetic 1960 screen adaptation The Village of the Damned. Wyndham’s Midwich was “… almost notoriously, a place where things did not happen.” The inhabitants had “…lived there for numerous generations in a placid continuity which had become a right.” The village is cut off from the world by a mysterious force field and the female inhabitants give birth to terrifying psychic prodigies, but the true horror lies in the fear and reactions of stock village characters — old ladies at bus stops, vicars, farmers and police constables.

Brian Aldiss dubbed this kind of science fiction, the “cosy catastrophe,” and observed that its protagonists are often middle class professionals triumphing over aliens or apocalypses while the working classes drop like flies. It’s a fair observation, but apart from the class bias typical in all British entertainment of the era, there’s something oddly thrilling about the portrayal of the breakdown of rigid societal conventions under conditions of utter confusion and bewilderment.

Very much in the “cosy catastrophe” line was the 1965 film The Earth Dies Screaming, where, after an alien invasion wipes out most of the human race, a group of cut-glass-accented survivors and an obligatory American tough guy fight back from the wonderfully incongruous HQ of a half-timbered village pub.

There’s something oddly thrilling about the portrayal of the breakdown of rigid societal conventions under conditions of utter confusion and bewilderment.

The master of English sci-fi juxtaposition, arguably, was one Nigel Kneale, the screenwriter and creator of Quatermass. In his stories, modernity and science continually collide head-on with the ancient and supernatural. In particular, his work for TV in the 70s, like his Beasts strand or The Stone Tape, was much less class-bound than the “cosy catastrophes” of the 50s and early 60s. But the contemporary British settings, and flawed, surly characters, were totally plausible and familiar, and their reactions are what truly terrify the viewer.

In 1966, Kneale wrote the screenplay for the Hammer flick, The Witches, which was adapted from a Norah Lofts novel, The Devil’s Own, and set in the superficially Edenic village of Hedaby. The worm in this particular apple was a pagan witch cult. Predating The Wicker Man and its own fictional inspiration David Pinner’s Ritual, it’s a very early example of what would become something of a horror cliché in later years. An outsider turns up in a remote location with a job to do, then gradually realizes that the entire population are involved in some form of ancient occult ritual (often with the exception of one foolhardy or mad whistle blower). The Witches isn’t one of Hammer’s finest moments, but Hedaby certainly looks the part and the film builds a strong atmosphere of weirdness and paranoia precisely because of the archetypal setting and characters. The mature and tweedier-than-thou schoolmistress protagonist played by Joan Fontain is confounded at every turn by vaguely threatening, forelock-tugging rustics straight from central casting.

The perennial British TV sci-fi favorite, Dr. Who, has always refreshed itself by reflecting the themes of contemporary science fiction and horror cinema. In 1971, the third Doctor, played by John Pertwee, faces The Daemons on very familiar territory. The story starts with the Kneale-esque motif of the discovery by archaeologists of a small spacecraft inside an ancient burial mound. Meanwhile, in the nearby village of Devil’s End, maypole dancers and a fortune-telling white witch set the Wicker Man-like tone. Just like Midwich, the village becomes isolated from the outside world by a force field. Later, we learn that the alien spacecraft belongs to a race known as The Daemons who have psychically influenced humanity throughout history, giving rise to our legends of Devils and demons, an idea lifted wholesale from Nigel Kneale’s TV series and film, Quatermass and The Pit. The village pub makes a handy base of operations for our heroes, just as it did in the Earth Dies Screaming.

Children’s TV of the 70s also picked up on the theme of high weirdness in the English village and 1976 saw the arrival of the ITV series Children of The Stones, co-written by Trevor Ray, a former Dr. Who writer and script editor. The village of Milbury is surrounded by a Neolithic stone circle and is locked into a time loop where events are doomed to replay themselves over and over, until two outsiders intervene to stop things and the loop is reset. Iain Cuthbertson plays the local squire, Rafael Hendrick, a character strikingly similar to Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man. He has harnessed the power of the stones to turn the villagers into a mob of mindlessly smiling minions, obsessed with Morris dancing and mathematics. The outsiders arrive in the form of an astrophysicist and his young son, Matthew, and their task is to survey the stone circle. Freddie Jones, a regular in British supernatural TV and cinema, plays Dai, a half-crazed poacher, who, unaffected by Hendricks’s powers, meets a sticky end when he tries to warn the newcomers.

It’s a well-worn trope in science fiction: supernatural or cosmic events intruding on the life of a familiar and mundane village or small town setting.

The real star of the piece is the location, the real life village of Avebury. A scarcely creditable picture postcard village built smack in the centre of a massive and oppressive four-thousand-year old stone monument, obviating the need for television’s customary grey-sprayed polystyrene megaliths. By contemporary standards, the series is surprisingly dark for a children’s show, the atmosphere greatly enhanced by the theme music, a terrifying avant-garde choral piece called Hadave by The Ambrosia Singers.

From the post-modern 90s onward, archetypal or clichéd setting and characterization tends to be avoided like the plague. Only in the service of a knowing joke are the Clue characters dusted off and dropped into a familiar work-a-day setting ready to meet their doom. Notably Edgar Wright’s trilogy of films Shaun of The Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End and television’s The League of Gentlemen were both pastiche and homage to all foregoing film and fiction of this kind.

It’s also worth noting that the idea of horror crashing in on a quiet parochial environment has long been a staple of British crime fiction too. The contrast of coziness and death being used to similar effects from the novels of Agatha Christie right up to the joyfully unselfconscious sandbox world of the long-running ITV series Midsomer Murders. For some reason, fictional detectives are almost expected to operate in a closed world populated with cardboard cut-outs.

These days, Dr. Who doesn’t tend to materialize on quaint village greens as much as he used to, but perhaps there is still something to fear in the twitching of lace curtains in cottage windows, or the nervous eccentricity of the vicar, the glassy-eyed stare of the locals in the village pub, or the strange noises coming from the old burial mound.