In 1983 and 1984 PBS aired six British gothic ghost stories under the collective banner “Shades of Darkness.” The tales take place from the early 19th century to the mid 20th century, and are based on short stories by Elizabeth Bowen, C.H.B. Kitchin, May Sinclair and Edith Wharton, with the latter author responsible for half of them.
For those who associate gothic fiction with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre camping up some tired Hollywood movie mansion embraced by loads of dry ice fog—or worse, with more recent vintage axe murders and deformed psychopaths—this series will be a treat. Each tale, in its own distinct way, is a coming to grips with a revenant, a lingering spirit of the recently deceased, under six very different circumstances. The settings are real—lonely country sides, ancient stone buildings—often dark, crumbling, and gloomy; and the actors are believable.
In one, a lady’s maid makes contact with her deceased predecessor, with both attempting to rescue their mistress from her brutish husband (and herself.) In another, an American financier and his unsuspecting wife take refuge from his questionable business practices in a Victorian mansion with an odd ghost—one whose true nature is gleaned only well after its manifestation. In a third, the spirit of a dead biological father appears to his young daughter bearing tokens for her mother now trapped in a loveless marriage. In the fourth, the restless spirit of a young woman draws her former suitor to her against his will and is opposed by his equally strong-willed wife. In the fifth, a sensitive writer with an aversion to children encounters the spirit of a dead child seeking comfort for herself and her family. And in the final tale, a middle aged woman comes to London during WW2 and encounters the cloying spirit of an all but forgotten suitor who disappeared during the previous war.
Some are more tightly directed than others, and some are more satisfying. Each clocks in at slightly under an hour, unfortunately separated into 2 parts—the first generally establishing the conditions of the haunting and the second the resolution. The endings are occasionally vague, especially in Wharton’s 19th century tales, where religion held a firmer grip upon the minds of the genteel and the target audience made associations and connections that may escape a more modern audience.
There are a number of familiar faces among the cast, including John Duttine and Francesa Annis in starring roles as well as Robert Hardy and Hugh Grant in a throw-away role as the eldest son of the woman in the final tale, presumably echoing his mother’s suitor’s situation. Often much is left to the imagination with only cursory explanations for the whys and wherefores, which is in itself both appropriate and refreshing.
These DVDs were released in 2008. As a collection of true gothic fiction, one could do so much worse.