Well.....This one’s real nasty. Before you read anymore, dust your corners. Sweep your floor. Man, why not just go the distance and fumigate your lounge. Now- happy you’re settled in an insect free paradise- treat yourself to the full episode. Reading more now is probably gonna spoil things, so we can just meet again in a half hour or so. Go on. You’ll like it.
See? Told you it was nasty...
The episode is based on a short story by Oscar Cook, something of a cult figure these days. Mostly he was published in anthologies with crazy visceral names—‘Grim Death’, ‘By Daylight Only’, ‘Gruesome Cargoes’, ‘Terror By Night’, ‘At Dead of Night’1—but I’m pretty sure it would have been Cook’s inclusion in ‘Weird Tales’ (the pulp daddy of em all) that caught the maestro Rod Serlings’ ever eager eye. Cook was a true stiff upper lip colonial Brit, stationed in Borneo from 1911 – 1919, and it was there, amongst the degenerate ex-pats and miserable locals, that he gathered the source material for his unpleasant little horror yarns. We Europeans have a fair bit of previous experience when it comes to the whole-losing-the-plot-in-the-colonies sphere2 so Oscar would have had plenty of upper class nutters around to base his work on.
And what a nutter he concocts, eh? As caddish as a chap can be, Laurence Harvey’s murderous gent absolutely steals the episode. From his clipped emotionless tones to his weasley villainous moustache, Harvey is in fine form from start to finish. He lays it down from the moment he enters, soaking and pacing in a tightly screwed rage—“A few more days of this and I’ll go stark staring mad, and you’ll have to ship me back to England,” before continuing a few minutes later with another great piece of prediction – “People like us don’t belong here. We become like jungle vegetation. We mildew and rot and go soggy. Our brains and our insides—“ oh, if only you knew old bean, if only you knew...
Harvey himself was nearing the end of a chequered career that had long since peaked. A shady character, as a youth he had been educated, then conscripted in South Africa, before coming to England to study drama. Here he (allegedly) see-sawed between acting and hustling, forming a lifelong pattern of debt, bad relationships and profligacy. He married 3 times, always to older women and all the while maintaining a long term love affair with his manager James Woolf. Professionally, he could have easily faded into obscurity had he not landed the lead in ‘Room At the Top’, a classic kitchen sink tale of ruthless social climbing that earned Harvey an Academy Award nomination and paved the way to Hollywood. Here, as his career took off, he went on to feature in The Manchurian Candidate, and fairly bizarrely, become Frank Sinatra’s valet.
However, Harvey’s crueller critics maintained that his success in ‘Room at the Top’ was down to him simply playing himself, and that when challenged he had no depth. He found himself appearing in a string of flops, and whatever the reasons, his success was fleeting. By the time, a decade and a half later, that 'The Caterpillar' was shot, he was floundering around in half assed roles looking to clear debts, and riddled with stomach cancer.3
Still his financial loss is Night Gallery's gain. There is the intense scene in the tavern where the wicked plot is hatched- whilst strange piping music plays a snake charmers lament, Harvey’s face is swathed in shadow, with only his darting feverish eyes visible, conveying everything you could wish to know about the darkness within, allowing themselves to be drawn to a horrific mad mans scheme.
And then there are the scenes of agony, where the earwig burrows and burrows through Harvey’s brain. It’s here that the actor took a far bolder step than his remit could ever require. As mentioned, he was suffering from cancer by this point. For some God-knows-why reason, he decided to add an authentic riff to his performance of a man in agony, and gave up his pain killing drugs during shooting. Consider: the stomach cancer killed him two years after the episode was filmed; the pain that Harvey channels is the agent of his demise. What you’re watching on the screen is the vocal, horrible early stages of a man’s’ genuine death throes.
For that reason alone, this episode of Night Gallery is truly remarkable, and a fine piece of TV to boot. Just try not to think about that little itch inside your ear....
1 There’s a decent bibliography of Oscar’s work to be found at the excellent Vault of Evil site--http://bit.ly/oIscSR
2 see Heart of Darkness, Journey to the End of the Night, King Leopold’s Ghost, and the frankly terrifying revelations the English home office is currently (sheepishly) releasing about our deranged, sadistic conduct in former Rhodesia. Funnily enough, whilst the English colonials were by and large going completely mental and performing horrific acts upon the ‘natives’ and each other, we maintained a comically pompous superiority, evidenced in travel journals with titles like ‘Wandering Amongst South Sea Savages’
3 OK, this is pretty unrelated, but it’s a great piece of trivia— In 1969 Harvey fathered Domino Harvey, who went on to become the bounty hunter portrayed by Kiera Knightly in the totally crap movie Domino. WOW !
Ian McQuaid writes for www.offmodern.com. He is a tiny despot. He has vice like gripping claws. He owns a chain of dry cleaners and a life size sculpture of armageddon. Last week he 'cracked a funny', as he calls it, and a deathly silence gripped the room. He lives in London with an aggressive wife and an angry dog.