Recently I have been re-visiting what are now called vintage British movies, you know the kind that are shown either late at night or on specialist channels such as Talking Pictures. Most of the movies I have been re-visiting are now referred to as being iconic examples of cinema, and I have to agree with this theory in 99 point 9 of cases. But as I have always said the words iconic and classic are these days used far to freely, so let’s move on shall we.  

A director that I feel is somewhat underrated is Bryan Forbes, he of course like many British directors began as an actor, and was a familiar face in British cinema productions of the 1950’s and 1960’s. He worked with Richard Attenborough many times, and I suppose it could have been by watching Forbes that Attenborough became one of England’s most celebrated filmmakers. Forbes and Attenborough collaborated on several projects some with Attenborough on screen but there were also a number of movies where Attenborough served as producer and writer.

One such production was released in 1964, when Attenborough starred in and produced the movie Séance on a Wet Afternoon. The film is a rather gloomy and claustrophobic affair but is also one that enthrals and snares its audience because it is just so well done and has an intriguing storyline. It contains so many stand out performances and is helmed wonderfully.  Photographed, in black and white which adds so much depth and atmosphere to the unfolding storyline seemingly making the characters even more believable.

The musical score by John Barry is sparse with the composer realising a sombre and down at heel mood that supports and, in a way, becomes part of the scenarios on screen. John Barry successfully injecting a sense of the sinister and creating unsettling moments in an already uncomfortable tale. Although this is probably one of the composers briefest scores for film, it generates tensions and elevates situations without being too over the top, thus becomes even more effective, it is background music but also has to it a sound and style that is very much foreground because of the way in which it is placed within the production, giving support to key scenes.

It also displays the talent and the versatility of a very young John Barry as a film music composer, a year before he had scored his first full-fledged Bond movie From Russia with Love, and in the same year worked on films such as the epic war movie Zulu and his second Bond soundtrack Goldfinger. Barry’s music for Séance on a Wet Afternoon, is as oppressive and alluring as the film itself, and gives us an indication of the artistry and genius that he would show to the world of film and music in later years. The opening credits sequence is the first time we hear the composers sad almost lamenting and stifling central theme, and yes even though this is a dismal and low-key sounding piece it still has to it understated thematic qualities. It sets the scene almost immediately, as people leave a séance on a damp and depressing day, the composer employing breathy woodwind to great effect.

This sound of understated woodwind and a low background tone that is almost like a dark and menacing humming, gives a hint to the audience that this is a story filled with apprehensive and chilling elements. The sound and the way in which the composer utilises it would later become one his trademarks. I thought I would discuss the score first because in my opinion the music made such a difference to the story and the images and was able to increase the levels of tension and escalate the dramatic ambience of the already anxious storyline.

Barry would use this same method or at least variations of it in other scores such as The Ipcress File, The Quiller Memorandum, Four in The Morning, and The Whisperers. His low-key scoring technique subtly enriching scenarios without being intrusive but remaining supportive, and successfully underlining key scenes with a hesitant yet semi melodic air. His work on Séance on a Wet Afternoon, also proved that the composer knew instinctively when not to score certain sequences, allowing the images or the actors and dialogue to create the atmospherics, allowing the storyline to breath and develop. I think one of the most impressive use of music in the movie is the kidnapping scene, the composer utilising woodwind again to great effect, with the instrumentation becoming the voice of the young girl who is being abducted, who is desperately screaming for help in the back of the car.

The score also contained a music box type theme, which was something of a respite from the remainder of the score, Barry employing the delicate and fragile sound sparingly. In many ways Barry’s score has much in common with the film music of today, it is underlying and at times even drone like, often verging upon being soundscape rather than musical score. But the composer infuses that haunting phrase performed by woods on various occasions which allows the thematic quality of the score to shine through.

Which is a testament to the artistry, foresight, and talent of the composer. The score has never been released but there is a representation of the music on many John Barry compilations, and Nic Raine arranged the music into an eight minute suite, which is available on a couple of Silva Screen and Tadlow music releases as well as being on you tube and digital platforms.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon I think is in my top twenty of British films alongside movies such as The Angry Silence, I,m Alright Jack, The Night of The Demon, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Dead of Night, Dracula, The Mummy, The Curse of the Werewolf, and so and so forth. Of course, there were plenty of brilliant movies to pick from that were around in the late 1940’s the 1950’s and 1960’s, with studios such as Ealing, Hammer and British Lion producing so many, it was a great time for British cinema with an abundance of films being produced that are now referred to as being classics. Carve her Name with Pride, Odette, The Wooden Horse, Passport to Pimlico, The Lavender Hill Mob, and The Lady Killers, Whistle Down the Wind, The Battle of the River Plate, Sink the Bismarck etc, and then as the 1960’s progressed we were treated to more James Bond adventures, and even a spoof of 007 in the form of the first incarnation of Casino Royale.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon focuses upon a married couple, Myra and Billy Savage played by Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough who reside in London. Myra works as a medium, who holds weekly meetings or séances, for a regular group of customers, with her downtrodden husband Billy supporting her in these ventures, as he does not seem to be able to gain employment because of a medical condition.  Arthur, who is the Myra’s spirit guide was their stillborn son.

Myra is the dominant partner in the relationship with Billy basically doing as he is told, but never complaining or objecting to anything his wife says or does.  Myra, with Billy’s support, comes up with a plan that she thinks will raise her public prominence as a medium: this plan involves the kidnap of a young girl Amanda Clayton, (Judith Donner) who is the young daughter of a wealthy couple, played by Mark Eden and Nannette Newman,

Myra plans to use her psychic powers to provide information to the Claytons and the police about Amanda and the requested ransom money’s whereabouts. Myra and Billy view this scheme as a victimless crime, if a crime at all, as they don’t plan on harming Amanda, and they are going to be returning the requested ransom. To carry out the scheme successfully, they will have to: kidnap Amanda; convince Amanda that her temporary captivity is not out of the ordinary, while having her not be able to identify them.

The thinking behind this is to make Myra’s information key to the police and eventually lead them to the girl and have her safely returned to her parents. Thus, giving Myra credence as a medium, it’s a complicated plot, but one that both Myra and Billy seem to think is a simple one and one that does no real harm at least not physically, to the child or her parents.

The screenplay was by Bryan Forbes who based his story on the original novel by author Mark McShane. Cinematography was by Gerry Turpin, and the editing was the work of Derek York. At times the film had to it an appearance that was somewhat stark, but this added even more to the overall impact of the plot and gave it a sense of realism. The cast was impressive with Patrick Magee, Michael Lees, and Gerald Sim . It is without a doubt one of Bryan Forbes best movies and still today is an essential watch.