Susan Hill, author of The Woman in Black, a terrifying piece of horror fiction – and, perhaps, the ultimate modern ghost story speaks to Film Critic Tony Earnshaw.
“I’d spent a lot of time in Suffolk writing in the winter. Behind the sea and the shingle beach there were marshes. And as soon as you come away from that shingle beach, which is making that shingly sound, walking across the marshes with just a little bit of a wind moaning, it goes completely quiet. The reeds make that rattle-y sound. If you walk across there at dusk, and the sun’s setting, however hardened you are you tend to look behind you…”
In 1982, Scarborough-born Susan Hill was 40. By her own admission she hadn’t written anything of length since the birth of her elder daughter, Jessica, in 1977. Between 1961 and 1974 she had produced ten novels and short story anthologies. Motherhood and its responsibilities led only to what she calls “bits and pieces”.
“I wanted to write a ghost story, because I loved them, and I needed to get right back to writing,” she recalls. “I must have been reading a ghost story and thought ‘If I could do that…’ I wanted to write it as a full-length ghost story. Mostly ghost stories are short and people think they’ve got to be short to sustain the tension. They’ve got to have a punch and that’s it.
“Having read The Turn of the Screw and A Christmas Carol again I thought, ‘You’ve got to give it a richness and a depth that you don’t in the short story, and you’ve got to go into the characters much more deeply.
“[So the story] started with places, I’m sure, and then wanting to see if I could do the length. I think that place was in my head. I don’t know where she came from, I really don’t. I can’t remember now. But I feel like I’ve kick-started a revival because the ghost story was fizzling out.”
The resulting work was The Woman in Black, a dread tale of vengeance from beyond the grave fed as much by the tradition of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, MR James, Daphne du Maurier, Henry James and Charles Dickens as by location, mood and style. It emerged as a novel in 1983, was adapted for the stage in 1987 and, now, has become a film under the Hammer banner.
Hill claims to be sanguine about the road her creation has travelled. She claims books are like children and that, as the child grows, so they become more their own person and less moulded by their parents. The Woman in Black occupies a similar space and it matters not to Hill whether it became a movie courtesy of Hammer, with all its gothic baggage, or any other production house.
“I’m always happy to hand over,” she says. “As far as films are concerned I think it was Ian McEwan [who] said ‘You either take the cash or you take control’. Which is a way of saying ‘Look, if you sell the film and you don’t like it, well, you’ve had the money, don’t complain. If you don’t want anybody else to touch it because you’re afraid that they’ll mess it up, don’t sell it’.
“But the other thing is that the book is still there. If people go and see the film or they see the play and they don’t like it or they don’t think it works then the book’s still there. They haven’t banned it because they’ve got the film.
“Also, you’ve got to be able to trust other people. The one thing you do want is for them to retain the spirit of the book. That doesn’t mean every character, every line, every scene. It means the spirit so you don’t turn this into a comedy. As soon as I saw Jane Goldman’s script and the film I thought ‘Wow!’
“As she put it, the screenwriter is changing something book-shaped into something film-shaped, but at the end, it is still the same thing that has been changed.”
Key to the success of Hammer’s tale is the casting of Arthur Kipps, the young solicitor who journeys north from London to put into order the papers of an elderly woman, recently deceased. It is Arthur, a tragic, vulnerable widower with his own steamer trunk of grief, who becomes the conduit for the ghost at the heart of this period chiller.
Chosen to play Kipps was Daniel Radcliffe, recently freed from a decade of Harry Potter movies and a young actor with his own very different fan base. Radcliffe calls Kipps “a Peter Cushing type” and that The Woman in Black is “a love note to the Hammer films of old. I think the Hammer fans will be pleased with this.” Hill says simply: “He’s grown up.”
The pair bonded over their shared love of Border Terriers, swapping photographs of their own dogs who they discovered were from the same breeder, but Hill was most impressed by finding Radcliffe had emerged seemingly unscathed by the attention and money which came with playing JK Rowling’s boy wizard.
“He is no longer Harry Potter, but a mature convincing, serious and highly talented adult actor. He inhabits the character of Arthur Kipps totally and for him the story is about loss, grief and their aftermath.
“I had lunch with Dan before filming started and we met again during filming and publicity. He is utterly unspoilt, charming, funny, and very, very serious about his future acting and possibly directing career.
“It’s great that being the world’s most famous child star for 10 years doesn’t mean you have to become spoilt and brattish and can also become a seriously good adult actor.”
Hill’s Yorkshire roots – she was born in Scarborough in 1942 and celebrated her 70th birthday yesterday – hint strongly at a Yorkshire setting for the story. One principal location for the film, Halton Gill near Skipton, provided the backdrop for Crythin Gifford, the insular village terrorised by a malevolent spectre that kills the locals’ children.
The remainder of the film is a patchwork of wildly differing geographic locales including a tidal causeway to Osea Island at Heybridge, Essex, and the Bluebell Railway in East Sussex. Interiors were shot at Pinewood Studios.
What’s more the play was developed by the late Stephen Mallatratt at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre before heading to the West End where it has played continuously since 1989.
“I didn’t set it in Yorkshire particularly; I’ve never really said where I set it. That’s what’s so great: it could be anywhere,” muses Hill.
“I certainly didn’t have Yorkshire in mind but I would love to have done it there. When I saw that place I thought, ‘This is perfect’. I did know Halton Gill – I must have been a lot as a child – but if I’d known and thought of it… who knows what’s been left in the residue of your mind from childhood?
“It was the perfect place. It just worked. When they said that’s where they were going for the village at first I thought ‘Right, okay.’ It is the remoteness as well, and that light.”
Fear etches itself deep into the soul in The Woman in Black. Both novel and play, and now the film, tap into primal fears that plague even the stoutest heart: fears of the dark, of water, of being buried alive – and of children. Hill’s story combines a tremendous central character with a deep understanding of those fears to create a very rich and resonant tale.
“Both the book and the play – and the film – are redolent with children; whether or not you slightly change the way it’s done. There is a child thing running through all of them and I’m glad that’s never been lost because it would be awful,” she asserts.
“I happen to be a Christian and an Anglican but that kind of isn’t really part of it. I would be interested in ghosts no matter what because the ghost story is on that edge that everybody finds interesting between life and death. It’s between darkness and light and between good and evil. It’s all on that cusp.
“I wondered why the play of The Woman in Black did so well in Japan because they absolutely love it. Then they started loving it in India. And the film will go to all those places. And I thought ‘This is set in Edwardian England, London fog, no steam trains, Yorkshire landscape…’
“It’s because the ghost story is absolutely part of every single culture, every oral storytelling tradition, every written [tradition]… ghost stories are there.
“It’s so much part of their everyday spirituality now – much more than here [in the UK]. I think it is just a natural preoccupation, and it is fascinating.”
The Woman in Black (15) is on general release from Friday.
Fall and rise of House of Hammer
In 1934, the same year Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night won five Academy Awards, a new British film company opened its doors.
Hammer Film Productions first offering was The Public Life of Henry the Ninth, a feel-good tale of a street musician who breaks into the big time. However, following the success of The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955, the company concentrated on horror, releasing The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and a clutch of other Gothic movie monsters. In the mid-1980s, the company went into hibernation, but with new owners in 2008 Let Me In became Hammer’s first theatrical release of the new millennium, followed last year by The Resident and Wake Wood.