I moved to Yorkshire in late 2011. Since that time, I’ve found much to admire: the area’s diversity, its many examples of beautiful 19th century architecture, the fine local ales and the friendliness of the people all do much to recommend it. In July, I went to Dublin and while there I attended a whiskey tasting session. The other participants and myself were asked by the guide from whence we came. It was with some pride that I replied, “Yorkshire”; my reply came from the heart. I feel something relax inside me when the signs on the M1 indicate that the next exit is for Sheffield. I know that beyond lay Wakefield, Bradford and Leeds.
But every home has its darker corners; every saint has his or her sins which are shrouded in silence. The new film “When the Lights Went Out”, invites us to explore some of the shadows which linger over Yorkshire, and to view them swirling in a particularly troubled period, the mid 1970’s.
The film is based on a series of true events which occured in Pontefract: a family with the surname of Pritchard was plagued by an annoying and turbulent ghost referred to as “The Black Monk”. It was generally more irritating than menacing: apparently it had a habit of making loud crashing noises. That said, young Diane Pritchard, the daughter, supposedly was once dragged up the stairs by the ghost and suffered lacerations on her throat. According to the family, she also was frequently thrown out of her bed by the restless spirit. Nevertheless, Mrs. Pritchard later referred to the ghost as “Fred”. This series of events have been reinterpreted and sharpened in this film, and the Pritchards were transformed into the Maynard family.
The centre of attention is a house on an unidentified housing estate: we’re merely told that it’s Yorkshire, 1974. From the first moment, the film is an exceptional period piece: we are awash in earth tones, polyester and bad haircuts. The home itself doesn’t look like a dream house to modern eyes, but thanks to Kate Ashfield’s performance as Jenny Maynard, we are forced to see the plain brown brick two up, two down house on a rather dull looking estate as something inviting.
However, there’s something wrong with it. Phantom footsteps echo in the halls; ugly ceiling lamps swing pendulously for no reason, listen carefully and we can hear the sounds of a someone’s terminal breath. The little home is more for the dead than the living; this particularly affects the Maynards’ teenage daughter Sally, portrayed by talented newcomer Natasha Connor.
The ghost story itself is rather conventional: it is a tale of unfinished business from long ago, old scores being settled, history catching up with a present that wants to ignore it. As it seems scarcely credible that the drab little house itself is the locus which created the supernatural activity, the director (Pat Holden) wisely draws our attention to the woods behind the home. Furthermore, there are frightening scenes which utilise familiar motifs: a ghostly eye suddenly staring out of a keyhole, invisible hands grasping for victims, the unknown in the encroaching dark which is full of terrifying menace, the unseen being far more frightening than what can be viewed. It is worth mentioning that this film is not recommended for those who have a particular fear of hanging or choking.
However, this rare glimpse into the Yorkshire of the 1970’s is far more interesting than the ghost story by itself: we are treated to headlines in the Yorkshire Post about 17% inflation. Working men go to clubs and drink pints of dark ale. People smoke cigarettes almost without thinking about it. The house has a coal shed and coal, presumably from Yorkshire pits, is stored in it to heat the home. Jenny wants a kitchen in avocado green; but her husband Len (Steven Waddington) informs her that they’re broke. They don’t appear to be alone in being short on cash; their possessions have a shabbiness about them which hints at a shallowness to their prosperity. The power fails occasionally; it’s just part of life, something to which people are accustomed. When Sally switches on the oversized colour television, which takes time to warm up, she’s greeted by a very young Noel Edmonds; when she listens to pop, it’s from entirely forgettable bands who echo with an optimism that the shabby surroundings otherwise don’t merit. A teacher has long hair, drives an old Volkswagen Beetle and wears a velveteen jacket and bell bottom trousers.
The film also works because it encapsulates 70’s attitudes as well: there is casual sexism, the expectation that “men are men” and that a “working man” is obliged by certain expectations to provide and protect. Women in this film don’t have careers; children can be smacked hard by their parents without repercussions or being thought of as abusive.
The narrative does eventually get around to explaining and disposing of the poltergeist; by the time this occurs, we’ve had a thorough tour of the material and intellectual universe of a forgotten and somewhat unlamented period. All that remains of that world now is perhaps the outer shell of the home and the rolling Yorkshire hills that surround it. Now, our power rarely fails, our pop music is as vapid, but perhaps more repetitive, no one is driving a Singer Vogue as the father does in this film. Striking one’s child would be cause for a jail sentence, and no longer are we keeping coal by the kitchen, which mercifully is no longer painted in avocado green. Polyester, thankfully, is also out of fashion. In some respects, things are much better now. Nevertheless, we cannot understand how we have arrived at this place without seeing from whence we came: we prefer to think about the Eighties, Sixties or even Fifties in relation to this journey, despite the efforts of brilliant historians like Dominic Sandbrook. This film may not be a great ghost story, and its frights may be infrequent and the special effects may not be the most advanced, but at least it gets deep into the acrylic shag pile of the era, allowing total immersion. For that reason, it’s commendable.