It was a dark, cold Christmas in 1989 (we’re guessing) when Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s gothic novel The Woman In Black scared the nation when it was broadcast on ITV, and now it’s here to scare a whole new audience with its restored and first-ever release on Blu-ray.
Set in the atmospheric (fictional) seaside town of Crythin Gifford, The Woman In Black (directed by Herbert Wise) follows young solicitor Arthur Kidd who is tasked with settling an estate of a widow who has recently died. Following cryptic warnings from the locals regarding the terrifying history of the old woman’s house, he soon begins to see visions of a menacing woman in black…
We spoke to the film’s star Adrian Rawlins who played Arthur Kidd about settling in to watch a good horror story and why the hell Arthur decides to go back into that house! WARNING: This interview contains spoilers if you haven’t seen The Woman In Black (quick! Go and watch it now, we’ll wait here…).
It’s been 30 years since The Woman In Black was first broadcast, what’s it like revisiting the film?
To see it again in its full glory is lovely. It was such a massive experience for me as a young actor – I’d never played a lead before (or since!) and I had relatively little experience on screen, so it was a gift. It’s funny watching it again – it all comes back; all the faces of the supporting artists, everybody on-screen… It’s a rather lovely experience, just delving back. If you’re lucky in your career, a diamond lands in your lap every however-long and that was a pretty big diamond for me. So I look back on it with immense fondness and gratitude.
Had you read the novel before you got the part and what did you think of the story?
No. As I remember, once I got the audition I went out and bought the book and delved into the book and found out as much as I could to help me with the auditioning process. But no I hadn’t come across it before.
As a relatively young actor, reading that script and knowing that you’re up for lead, the main thing is ‘I want this part’! It’s rare that that possibility comes along [when you] read a script and you go ‘yeah I think I could be right for this part’ and it would mean playing the lead in a telly film, which would be a big step up for me. So probably, I can’t remember exactly, but I would imagine that way back then as a young, ambitious actor that would be my prime concern, the ‘how can I get this part?!’.
What were your thoughts on Arthur?
I think the strength of Arthur is he’s just a bloke. He’s got no particular edge, he could be every man. He wants to do well, he’s conscientious. He cracks on with his work. He’s got a young family, he’s got those responsibilities and I don’t think I felt ‘oh I want to do this with him’ or ‘I’m going to do this kind of left-field thing with him’. I just kind of thought he’s just got be a regular geezer.
He’s not a superman. Obviously he’s not a coward but I think if you’re going to spend an hour and a half to watch a film, you’ve got to care. It’s hard for me to say because I can’t be that objective, but I hope with Arthur Kidd, you just care. You think ‘oh he’s a regular geezer, I’ve got nowt against him’. So I think that was my main thing. Just be honest, don’t get clever with it. The story’s enough.
Arthur makes some strange choices in the film. Deciding to stay in the house once he’s heard the ghost for one…
I must say it’s funny you bring that up because I watched it for the first time in a God knows how many years and you are thinking ‘why are you going back to that house?’. But I think that’s the strength of the story, there are no special effects, you’re not assaulted by blood or gore or knives. It barely feels like a horror story to me. It feels like a drama. But if it has any potency it’s just an old fashioned ghost story where you go “NO! Don’t go back to the house! Don’t open that door! Don’t!” you put yourself in that situation. ‘I wouldn’t open that door… oh he’s opened that door!’ and that’s enough in a sense. I think Herbert Wise, the director, he trusted that that was enough to hook the audience in. That’s all it was, there are no explosions. If you look at the horror genre nowadays it’s so much about effects. The Woman In Black, by comparison, is quite gentle and it breathes. It doesn’t rush.
The still film holds up today. What do you think is the secret behind its endurance?
I think you have to take your hat off to Pauline [Moran]. Whatever she’s doing, she’s doing it brilliantly. I remember feeling that when we filmed. It sent shivers down my spine – and there’s something about not knowing. She’s this presence and okay you find out her back story and she’s lost a child and da de da, but there’s something… it’s just this malevolent presence that you can’t put your finger on. That you can’t explain away. You can’t understand or box it up in a neatly packaged thing, it’s just a powerful presence that you can’t do anything with.
From the first time we meet her, that presence hovers over the film, and right towards the end when he finally burns all the papers and nearly burns down the office, we go ‘maybe that’s it’. But then she’s got to turn up again! And then SPOILERS ‘oh my God! She’s killed the whole bloody lot!’ which is very brave considering in the book he survives. That doesn’t happen in the book. I thought that was a really brave choice and leaves the audience going ‘you can’t do that!’.
And then titles come up and you go: “What? No! Please!” which I think is just brilliant. Nigel Kneale who did the screenplay did a fantastic job. I have to say the design, the music is crucial, Rachel Portman who did the score, and the sound design. The scream on the causeway! You don’t want to hear that again! Just people who know their stuff just feeding into the story.
Do you remember being on set?
Yeah I do actually, it’s funny because watching it everything comes back. Every day I was immersed in that world and so I do remember the house very well and the bloody dog who bit me once! It’s funny when I look at the film, I’ve either got a sausage in my hand or my face is rubbed with sausage meat because that dog was a pain the backside.
The design – the kid’s room with old Victorian dolls in and stuff like that – I just think it helps so much because it’s there, you don’t have to create it in your head. It’s there in front of you. You just are in that world and it’s a great testament to the art department.
When he sets the office on fire at the end and he comes back to the office and it’s charred and smouldering, I remember coming back in and what the art department had done with the office you just go: ‘Wow! They’re bloomin’ brilliant!’
Where did you film The Woman In Black?
We filmed in a real house West of London. The causeway is on the Thames estuary somewhere. It’s a genuine causeway that gets covered over when the tide comes in. so yeah you’d film cycling across the causeway and then two weeks later you’d finish your cycle just outside the house somewhere outside West London!
The village is in Lacock, in Wiltshire. It’s used for a lot of filming because the high street actually looks like that. It’s literally frozen in time. It’s amazing.
What was it like when it first aired on Christmas Eve?
I think I’m right in saying that there were four channels then, so it was before there was an explosion of God knows how many channels we have now. [So] it would have been quite a big thing for me. It was quite something really for [all of] us – mum worked in a paper shop and dad worked in a market so it was like “bloody hell son, what you doing on telly!”.
Also, what do you want over Christmas Eve? A good old ghost story! I think people will always love a good story. Back in the stone age, kids probably sat around the fire while dad or whoever talked about how he nearly got bit, just escaped with his life from the sabre-toothed tiger he was hunting and the kids would be “what happened then, what happened next?”. It’s primal. I do think there genuinely always will be. Sometimes we can, especially in this age, where we’re constantly assaulted with information – almost like we can’t bear to be with ourselves for 20 seconds before we’re fed another image to consume – we can get addicted to that.
I think somewhere in us is a deeper place that just likes a good story and doesn’t need to be assaulted to allow us to do the work. Allow us to create horror pictures in our heads. And that can be a richer experience. But it’s almost like it’s not trusted as much [these days]. Maybe I’m just an old giffer I don’t know! It’s like sometimes filmmakers now don’t trust the audience. I think that is the splendour of this story; that it’s a good old fashioned story that somehow hooks into us and I think that’s why it’s had the outings it has had. And also that’s why they keep re-doing the classics. The classic novels, like Frankenstein. They’re just good stories that somehow hit us in the solar plexus.
There’s no blood, there are no heads coming off! It relies on the audience putting themselves in that house with Arthur Kidd going “no, dear God don’t go in there, I wouldn’t go in there, he’s going in…” and yeah that’s its strength.
Have you seen the 2012 remake of The Woman In Black?
No I haven’t. There’s been two films and they gave me a part in the second one, which was The Woman in Black: Angel of Death which I think was nod to me being in the first one. Daniel Radcliffe [was in the 2012 one and] I play his father in the Harry Potter series; there’s weird synchronicity there. Maybe subliminally I’m going ‘no I just want to see the original’. Or maybe I’m just lazy, I’m not sure!
The worldwide Blu-ray debut of The Woman In Black is available exclusively from the Network website on 10 August