Thursday, February 5, 2009 Occult Detectives: John Silence

The late Sheila Hodgson was a noted author and playwright who wrote extensively for BBC Radio. Of particular interest to genre fans is her series of audio dramas, inspired by M.R. James' fragmentary Stories I Have Tried to Write, which feature James himself as protagonist.

Much less known is her series featuring Algernon Blackwood's supernatural detective, John Silence. I don't know how many of these were produced, and the usual references don't have much info. Camp of the Dog is the only audio drama I could find with the same title as one of the original John Silence tales. To further complicate things, the other play I have is based on a Blackwood story which originally had nothing to do with the "physician extraordinary". If anyone could pass along information on other John Silence dramas by Hodgson, I'd be most grateful.

John Silence would bristle at being labeled an occult detective. He referred to himself as a "psychic doctor", one who tended to the ailments of the spirit instead of that of the flesh. Silence hated the word "occult", and considered what we call the supernatural to be merely an extension of the so-called natural universe. All manner of bogies, from werewolves to ghosts, are merely manifestations of a spiritual illness in Silence's worldview.

In Hodgson's plays, Silence isn't the hero as much as an observer, an expositionary character who explains what is happening and why. This is in keeping with the original short stories by Blackwood, in which the "psychic doctor" was involved to various degrees, sometimes as protagonist, sometimes simply as a sympathetic audience to another's tale (as is the case in Ancient Sorceries, which was produced as a four-part reading by BBC7). Still, these dramas are spooky fun, and should be of interest to any fan of Hodgson's other works.

To download Sheila Hodgson's adaptations of Camp of the Dog and The Empty Sleeve, click on the link below to be taken to the Rapidshare download page. You will need WinRar or a similar program to decompress the file.

The six original John Silence stories by Algernon Blackwood are available in html format via the link below:

And you can download seven of Hodgson's eight neo-James plays thanks to the generosity of the OTR Times Past community:

Wednesday, February 4, 2009 DVD Shuffle: The Scarecrow Rides!

As I mentioned in my post on the Austin Zombie Warning, I am listed in the acknowledgments of Jess Nevins' A Blazing World, an incredibly well-researched volume on Alan Moore's second League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. I didn't do much to earn it. I simply pointed out that Nevins had mistaken Captain Clegg for Captain Blood in his notes on a Kevin O'Neill illustration of a gathering of (in)famous literary pirates.

This recollection of my trifling contribution to literary scholarship and the recent passing of cult icon Patrick McGoohan spurred me to once again dive into the DVD stack. Today's post is about the Reverend Doctor Syn, alias the Scarecrow.

Last November saw the release of Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh as part of the Walt Disney Treasures DVD line. Dr. Syn was a fondly-remembered mini-series that originally aired as three episodes of Disney's Wonderful World of Color in 1963; the episodes were edited into a feature-length film for theatrical release overseas and subsequent television showings. Those repeats of Dr. Syn were few and far between, and the show became something of a holy grail for swashbuckler fans, especially those who had thrilled to the Scarecrow's exploits as children.

I had never seen the series myself. The closest I ever came as a kid was eyeing the intriguing cover for the tie-in novelization in school book fair catalogs (I was Scholastic Books' bitch in those days). As an adult, I'd come across bootleg tapes and DVD's at cons and on-line, but balked at the prices charged for grainy nth-generation dupes of the theatrical cut. Rumors of a DVD release flew about for years, and so I waited patiently for one of them to pan out. Finally, a definite street date was announced by Disney Studios late last year.

The DVD release was limited to 39,500 copies and, according to Wikipedia, sold out in three weeks. I know I had trouble locating a copy just the day after it first hit store shelves, but it was an insignificant hurtle after all those years of waiting, of scouring eBay and the Disney Channel listings in vain. At last I had the opportunity to watch this heralded classic. I was finally going to see Number Six as a pirate cum mystery man in the swashbuckling days of yore. And I was going to see it as it had originally been broadcast, not hacked to pieces, in beautiful digital quality.

I made the mistake of watching Night Creatures first.

A little background is in order. Dr. Syn was the creation of actor and author Russell Thorndike. While Thorndike and his sister Sybil (who would eventually be knighted for her contributions to the British stage) were touring the United States with a theatrical company, a murder occurred just outside their hotel during a stay in South Carolina. Unable to sleep, the siblings entertained each other by telling gruesome tales into the wee hours. Thorndike set his story in Romney Marsh, a place familiar to the duo from the summer vacations they had spent there as children, and drew inspiration from the smugglers who had notoriously plied their trade in the area long ago. On that night, the Reverend Dr. Syn was born.

Thorndike originally intended to turn the story into a stage play, but the tale of the Scarecrow would first reach audiences as a novel published during World War One. Several years would pass before a theatrical adaptation was mounted, but Thorndike himself was able to play the title role. The popularity of the character induced Thorndike to write several prequels, and a successful film version starring George Arliss was produced by Gaumont-British in 1937.

In the early 1960's, a producer for the legendary Hammer Films decided a remake of the 1937 movie was in order and acquired the rights from the Rank Organisation, which had absorbed Gaumont-British. Unfortunately, Disney also had the bright idea of bringing back the good Reverend to the screen. The US studio had been inspired by the 1960 publication of Christopher Syn, an adaptation of one of the later Syn books written by American author William Buchanan with the approval of Thorndike. Disney acquired film and television rights from the publisher of the Syn books, who were apparently unaware of the Rank Organisation's involvement and their deal with Hammer. Things were further complicated by a tricky US copyright snafu that could have prevented Hammer from selling their film to the American market and Disney from distributing their version overseas.

Happily, a deal was worked out. Hammer would be able to film their remake of the Arliss film as they had intended, Disney would be able to create a series based on the novels as they had intended, and both studios would be able to distribute their products as they liked. All it took was for Hammer to change the identities of some of the principal characters - Doctor Syn became the Reverend Blyss - and Disney to drop the Captain Clegg background they hadn't been interested in anyway.
Despite being based on the same story, the two finished productions are a study in contrast.

Like the book that inspired it, Dr. Syn is a bloodless, episodic adventure tale aimed at youngsters. Disney introduces a wholly unnecessary subplot involving an American revolutionary arrested for preaching sedition against King George, and a rather perfunctory romance between the Squire's daughter and one of the soldiers assigned to capture the Scarecrow. While the series was shot on authentic locations - Disney even paid for the restoration of the church used for the good doctor's congregation - these feel less real and more sterile, more... Disney.

Hammer's film, known as Captain Clegg in Europe and Night Creatures in the US, is dark and atmospheric, perfectly in keeping with what was originally written as a macabre thriller. The narrative is much more focused, and the romantic subplot involving the Squire's son and a local girl actually adds to the story rather than distract from it. The production is mostly studio-bound, but the Bray Studio sets have a veneer of grime that makes them feel lived-in. As a result, they come off as far more organic and believable than the freshly scrubbed locations used for Dr. Syn.

The biggest problem with the Disney series is that it doesn't end as much as stop. Nothing is really resolved in the final episode. Maintaining the status quo is expected for a weekly television show, but it really hurts a three-episode mini-series; for a feature film, it's simply unacceptable. Night Creatures' rousing climax stands out all the more in comparison.

The Rev. Blyss
Cast as the lead of Night Creatures was the wonderful Peter Cushing. While he is known as a horror movie icon, Cushing was a swashbuckler at heart. You only have to see his energetic performances as Van Helsing for evidence of this - the athletic climaxes of Horror of Dracula and Brides of Dracula, and the battle scene from 7 Golden Vampires in which the 57-year-old actor hurtles himself backwards into a campfire! Cushing was excited by the Syn remake to the point of writing his own (unused) screenplay for the project. Viewing the film today, you can clearly see that Cushing is having the time of his life. His performance is full of little flourishes and nuances that really bring the character to life.

In contrast, McGoohan's Syn is rather bland and unremarkable. This may have been a conscious decision to better contrast with his flamboyant alter ego, but we're still stuck with a rather dour hero much of the time. McGoohan's Scarecrow, on the other hand, is lively and fun, speaking in a fantastic croak when barking orders and making dire threats to both enemies and bothersome allies (though the script consistantly undercuts the effect with Syn's admissions to his lieutenants that he would never, ever do such horrid things).

McGoohan's performance as the Scarecrow is aided by a phenomenal costume. His mask is a thing of gruesome beauty, and the smuggler's cloak is actually a large, tattered coat with a wooden crossbar still struck through the sleeves. Others have commented on the similarity between the Scarecrow's mask and the make-up used for the Joker in The Dark Knight; between that and the choice of villains in Batman Begins, I wouldn't be surprised if the Nolan boys had been fans of the Disney series as youngsters.

A scarecrow does appear in Night Creatures, but only as a simple disguise utilized by one of the Reverend Blyss' lieutenants while playing look-out. All right, so it doesn't look nearly as bad-ass, but that's Oliver Reed under there and he could still kick your ass from beyond the grave.

Had I encountered Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh as a child, I probably would have been one of its many admirers. However, viewed for the first time as an adult, it comes across as rather tepid, even in comparison to other Hollywood swashbucklers of the time. I did enjoy it, and it has several admirable qualities. It's just that I enjoyed Night Creatures much more, and the back-to-back viewings underscored what I saw as Syn's flaws.

In a perfect world, we would have a feature that combined the fantastic costumes from the Disney production with the lusty zeal of the Hammer film. Disney now has all the movie and television rights to Thorndike's creation locked up tighter than a Mousketeer's virginity; we can only hope they revisit the property soon, hopefully with a darker edge in wake of the successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. In the meantime, however, I don't see myself going back to Dr. Syn as often as I will Night Creatures.

That doesn't mean you can have my DVD tin, though.

Can you believe the old charlatan claimed that Syn was a true story?



Doctor Syn (Russell Thorndike, 1915): My copy is a Romney Bookshop edition published in 2004, with a rather dorky cover painting.

Little Shoppe of Horrors #17: An obvious labor of love for all involved, this small press fanzine is devoted to the films of Hammer Studios. Copies of issue 17, an in-depth look at Captain Clegg, can be ordered here.


Night Creatures, aka Captain Clegg (1962): Available on DVD as Universal's Hammer Horror Series set, along with seven other Hammer flicks, including the bona fide classics Brides of Dracula and Curse of the Werewolf. Less than twenty bucks at Why the hell don't you own this already?

Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1964): The collector's tin is currently available on eBay and everywhere else overpriced goods can be found.

The original 1937 version of Doctor Syn is not currently available on DVD. I understand I'm not missing much, but the completist in me chafes.


WikPedia article on Doctor Syn

Nightriders: This site hosts the entire Doctor Syn series in HTML format! There are free pdf versions available at another site, but they're "protected" by a watermark that renders the pages all but unreadable.

Hollywood Prop and Costumes: This site offers reproductions of the costumes used for the Disney version of Dr. Syn, as well as photos autographed by Patrick McGoohan. I'd order one of the latter in a heartbeat if I was still employed. Damn you, global financial crisis!

Some of the movie posters and lobby cards used here were yoinked from and

And while I didn't come across it until after this post had been written, I have found what claims to be the Official Website of Dr. Syn. The site looks to have lots of info on Romney Marsh itself, the biannual "day of Syn" celebrations, and contributions by local artists.


Great Lives - Peter Cushing: An episode of the BBC Radio biography series, in which current figures of note select persons they believe to have led a "great life". This episode focuses on beloved Hammer star Peter Cushing, as chosen by comedian and author Mark Gatiss. You can download this program in mp3 format by clicking on the Rapidshare link below:

Happy Birthday to Me, I Guess

It was my birthday Sunday, February 1st. I turned 42.

It was my last day of employment Friday, January 30th. I was laid off after 17 years with the same company.

I may be posting here much more frequently, my imagination and energy set free by the absence of work commitments. Or I may be posting here even less frequently, mentally and emotionally crippled by an ever-expanding miasma of despair. I'd say it's about fifty-fifty either way at this point.