High Spirits / John Connors / October 2005
A masterclass in script writing and studio acting, The Ghosts of Motley Hall has been hidden away in children’s television history behind the outwardly similar BBC series Rentaghost for far too long. It’s time for that to change though, because the ITV series is infinitely superior in every respect. Motley Hall delights in rich language and revels in its own world of ghosts who are only human after all; it pivots gracefully on tiny plots weaving them brilliantly into 25 minutes of character interaction and fun. Where Rentaghost goes for the cheap panto laugh and slapstick every time, Motley Hall will delight you with wit, energy and even drama. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been acknowledged because at the time the series was incredibly popular, being nominated for a BAFTA award and twice winning “junior TV Times” `Look In`’s readers award for favourite series. Perhaps with all the episodes now available on dvd this will change and the true worth of the show will be recognised.
Motley Hall is a sprawling country pile that’s been empty for twenty years since the last of the notorious Uproar family emigrated. Now that Sir Humphery has died, owner Arnold Gudgin is trying to sell the place but is having a bit of a problem because its haunted by five ghosts of whom he can only see one but who themselves are determined to stop anyone buying Motley and upsetting the routine they’ve gradually settled into over the centuries.
Sir George Uproar is a bellicose, self inflated Victorian General whose ignominious demise eighty years ago (falling down the stairs) is rather at odds with his tales of daring and fighting prowess. He thinks he’s in charge and the others mostly let him carry on thinking that. He often bores them with his war stories, failing to point out how many of his military campaigns went awry plus he just loves to hold meetings. Francis `Fanny` Uproar is a 18th century fop who was constantly drunk when alive, has a brain the size of a pea and is also very forgetful; in fact he often fails to understand what’s happening under his nose. Bodkin, a professional fool from the time of Queen Elizabeth the first has been here the longest and is always ready to regale his companions with corny jokes and entertain them by playing the flute. Behind his banter lies a heart of gold and his expressions of surprise, “Gloriana!” and derision, “Fishooks!” become so familiar that you find yourself about to say them in real life.
The White Lady doesn’t know where she’s from and in her flowing white robes is often to be seen mournfully haunting staircases. Her status as both the only female ghost and lack of memory mean she sometimes feels left out. Matt is a stable boy from the Regency period who ironically has more brains than the rest of them put together even though he can’t read. He is the one who gets them thinking and always knows what to do though he does have a mischievous side as well. Together they have forged a friendship full of arguments, misadventures, ill advised ideas and ruses that scare off potential buyers, play havoc with long suffering Gudgin’s nerves and get them into trouble with other ghostly visitors.
The inspiration for the series came to Carpenter when he was staying at a theatrical boarding house in Liverpool and thought he’d seen a ghost. “I’d had a long drive, followed by a rehearsal and my spirits were low when I got back for a nap at Ma Kellys” he told `TV Times` in 1976, “I woke to find this alien entity at the end of the bed. A fairly conventional ghost, I must say, the long grey crinolene type, but not being a very sophisticated viewer it frightened the life out of me. Well, not quite!”. He added that he didn’t think he belonged to the “psychic percentage of the population…ghosts don’t pick on me particularly.” At the time of this apparition, his landlady denied any knowledge but Carpenter says “fifteen years later..I was told that that particular ghost had appeared to at least 500 other people”.
When he was asked to write a new show for Granada the memory came back to him. In a later interview he said; “I got to thinking, do they [ghosts] see us? And if they see us, what do they think of us? That started me off with the idea of ghosts.” Quentin Lawrence who had struck up a good working relationship with the writer when he directed Catweazle was also the producer of the new show and had given Carpenter a rather narrow directive: “He said, ‘We want to do a comedy show that all takes place in one set and it's five or six people, no more and maybe one guest every week’... and I thought, well ghosts can't get out, they're sort of stuck where they are and they can be from any period in history and jogging along together so to speak. I sort of thought if there were five ghosts in this empty house, they would want to keep it empty, they didn't want people in it at all. They were five ghosts who sometimes got on, sometimes didn't get on, but had to get on because they were stuck there. Some people could hear them and see them, and it struck me that if you could create that sort of situation, you've got bags of comedy going.”
In the end Carpenter found the restrictions quite inspiring, “It is often very good for a writer to have constraints because it forces you back to using ingenuity and artistry” he said “If you are told do what you like, you come up with nothing really, nothing of any artistic value. But if you are told ‘three people in a single room, an hour and a half play’ then it's got to be in the writing.” As far as the tone of the series was concerned Carpenter said at the launch, “My ghosts don’t go for clammy hands and low moans and clanking chains….they’ve got to live together- perhaps live isn’t the right word, co-exist is probably better.”
At first modern viewers may find the style and pace rather theatrical but once you get half way through the first episode you will be hooked, both by the richness of the scripts and acting and the level of sheer enjoyment that all the episodes put across. Carpenter described the cast as “all so talented and easy to write for” and once they’d begun filming, he tapered each of the ghosts to utilise the tremendous acting range and particular performance skills of each of the cast. The scripts never pander to the easy pratfall nor the sentimental yet both the comedy and truth in them draw out performances of real depth that study the interaction between people forced into each other’s company. Like a bizarre family the ghosts co-existence is never easy; there’s always someone in a mood, someone with an idea, someone with the answers, someone messing about. As he wrote all the episodes, Carpenter was also able to keep some continuity, most amusingly in the fact that Sir George’s watch always says “ten past four” which rather than grating becomes funnier and funnier each time they use it. As one of the cast, Nicholas Le Prevost said at the series’ launch “ a certain element of accident pervades at Motley Hall. As ghosts, lets face it, we’re rank amateurs”.
Sir George is played by Freddie Jones, already an established character actor who made his tv debut in 1963 and who’s pre Motley cv reads like a list of all the key cult programmes of the 60s and 70s. In a role he seems to be perfect for, the actor is all bluster and shouting and sometimes looks as if he might explode. The way the character is written and played (“a real dyed in the wool Victorian” as Jones himself called the role) resembles a spoiled child and when he’s quelled on a couple of occasions – having his voice taken away in Phantomime and cowed by the ghost of sister Alexandria in Skeleton in the Cupboard- things seem so quiet. What a shock too to see Jones playing Sir George’s father with fleet footedness in The Christmas Spirit, an episode that allows him perhaps the series’ most subtle moment of bittersweet nostalgia. As evidenced by his comments on the recent dvd release, the actor enjoyed the series; back in the 70s he said it was “so very well written. I love its occasional implicit pathos. I loathe pathos if it is superimposed but this is comedy at its best.”
Nicholas Le Prevost manages to appear tipsy or hung over at all times as Fanny bumbles around in bafflement. Watch him and you’ll find some of the funniest physical comedy in the show such as when he draws his sword or falls over but the best Fanny moments are when he has absolutely no idea what the others are on about from one sentence to the next. Although he’s become a renowned theatre actor at the Globe and the National and also appeared in many well known series, Motley Hall was the actor’s tv debut and he said at the time: “Playing a ghost is very much like playing anyone else except that ghosts have one big problem. They’re dead. And as a ghost, one feels that every reminder of this irreversible fact is indelicate to say the least. Otherwise we’re a terribly homely lot, too preoccupied with surviving to have much time for agonising or any of that stuff.”
The White Lady is a role Sheila Steafel revels in, despite the obvious problems of having no back-story to work with; “I’ve never felt quite so unsure about a character in my life” she said at the time. Yet her experience as a comedienne is brought to bear in her range of expressions and silent knowing looks. A running theme of the show is her interaction with Gudgin; the scenes she and Peter Sallis play are a joy to watch. Her resigned haunting of the stairs, from The Last Uproar onwards add a tinge of regret to all the fun and in both Perfidia Blackart Rides Again and Godfrey of Basingstoke, she manages to make the White Lady both very funny but also sympathetic as the character never discovers her true identity. “I kept beseeching Richard Carpenter to give me a clue, “ she said after the first season was made “but he swore he was baffled himself.” After filming the first series she described her overall impression of production thus; “you keep chatting to chalk marks.”
Bodkin’s casting was a masterstroke playing heavily on Arthur English’s own history as a stand up comedian. Thus the timing of even the most obvious of jokes is spot on and amidst the hysteria English also adds parental warmth to proceedings as well as revelling in the delivery of some of the more risqué (for the intended audience) lines that Carpenter slyly places here and there. English certainly seemed to believe in the other side, when interviewed in 1976 he said, “I’m extremely psychic. Saw a ghost once in Germany- out of the corner of my eye, naturally. It was after the war. I was on guard with a tank regiment near the Dutch border when I saw this `thing` going straight across the road and flipping though the wall. We heard afterwards that the school mistresses’ son had been killed while serving in a Panzer regiment and that he was always trying to get back to the schoolhouse to see his mother.”
Sean Flanagan plays Matt with tremendous energy, tearing around the set with unashamed zeal and bursting with enthusiasm being the only ghost, initially at least, who can leave the confines of the house. It’s a vital role for the children’s audience who would have seen him as an identifiable elder brother; kudos to Carpenter for making him the only ghost who isn’t half or wholly bonkers! Flanagan proves himself the equal of his more experienced fellow cast members too; check out Double Trouble or Ghost of a Chance in which Matt is particularly well utilised. Playing the role helped in other ways too as he told `TV Times` in 1976; “I used to have terrible nightmares until I first played this ghost. I used to dream of walking downstairs in my sleep to the sitting room where all my family were watching TV. Then I’d be beckoned by a `presence` in a picture on the wall and dragged through the picture frame. Now with Motley Hall, I think of ghosts as my mates. I wouldn’t mind bumping into a real one any time.”
All together arguing, sparring, laughing or sorting something out they are riveting to watch because each takes their role with utter seriousness yet generously supports the other; true ensemble playing. A word too for Peter Sallis who appeared in most episodes; his put upon Gudgin is a great counter point to the confidence of the ghosts.
The writer and cast are not let down by the production standards either. Some of the visuals needed are fairly ambitious but Motley Hall has better FX than some television science fiction shows of the time because of the care taken and the fact that they are sparse but cleverly used. By building an alternative `set` made entirely of green material that replicated the shape of the main studio set of the Great Hall, and shot with a green screen behind it was possible for all the appearing and disappearing to happen accurately with none of the jarring jumps that you saw on other series when people vanished.
On the dvd commentary, Richard Carpenter reveals that all the squares on the floor were numbered and the `green set` had corresponding numbered tiles so you don’t get any of the ragged edges that CSO could otherwise give because everything was lined up carefully. The set itself is tremendously atmospheric dominated by a large hall containing a billiard table and two staircases leading up to a balcony and was partly designed from fibreglass mouldings taken from a real building. Other regular sets include the bell tower and several lengthy corridors. Everything is painted to look like dark wood and with cobwebs abounding and low studio lighting it resembles a bona fide horror film set.
Quentin Lawrence directs as well as produces and had worked on many television shows since the 1950s including Danger Man, The Baron, The Avengers, A Family At War and Doomwatch. His cameras prowl about this playground and so the setting never becomes repetitive, with inventive shots from the balcony point of view and lots of corners to take the characters in and out of; it’s also a great environment for the actors to clamber about. By the second and especially the third season there are some plot developments allowing outside footage in the sprawling grounds; these were actually filmed at a place called Borwick Hall in Lancashire that still stands today and is now used as an activities centre with accommodation facilities. Thought was put into the incidental music too. Wilfrid Joseph used a mini Steinway, which gave it an instantly recognisable sound and each ghost also had their own little series of notes for whenever they vanished or re-appeared. Josephs also composed some other notable themes for various characters; the one for Old Gory being particularly apt.
Everyone concerned never allows the zest to flag and every so often Carpenter adds a little something; Sir George getting to go outside, different people seeing different ghosts, a little of Motley’s rich history and so on. Just occasionally, too, he allows a moment of pure emotion to appear notably in Christmas Spirit when the house’s dreamed up old Xmas that they have been witnessing vanishes, the picture suddenly looks blue and cold and the ghost’s faces tell, just for a second, of loneliness and distant memories. The series only finished because Carpenter felt he’d written all he could for the show and couldn’t think up any more scenarios that wouldn’t repeat what he’d already done. In some ways it’s a pity because watching the rapport between the cast and the fun situations is addictive but then again a weak fourth season would have been a shame too. On the dvd commentary, Freddie Jones ponders whether the show would work today and Carpenter isn’t sure; “the pace of children’s programmes has increased” he says, “They seem to have to have something happening every fifth of a second…..you can’t develop a character.”
Of all the old shows that are gradually making their way onto dvd, The Ghosts of Motley Hall is the most enjoyable I’ve yet to see and surely deserves to be known as a classic. Up the Uproars!!
For much more Motley mayhem including a piece written by Sheila Steafel, the White Lady herself and a full episode guide go to the Live From Mars website