Impish Hillmans

The eccentric tale of a car that just keeps coming back to haunt you.

Pinkie Johnstone, about to get a shock from the television set.
Terence Rigby and Pinkie Johnstone, about to get a shock from the television set.

“I remember this thing I saw on telly once about a couple that had this old car they didn’t want, and they kept trying to get rid of it. They dump it somewhere and then it starts being seen in different places until eventually…”

My brother recollected this strange story to me once, many, many years ago, as strange a Tales of Unease: The Old Banger (1970)story as anything allowed on television in those less-accountable days of old, when producers could commission on a hunch. Quite by chance, sometime later I found out what it was: The Old Banger, an episode of a 1970 anthology series, Tales of Unease. And despite only being shown once, and only in selected ITV regions, the little oddity clearly left an echo in its wake; in the years since then I’ve noticed quite a few queries on message boards, all asking for help identifying a similarly hazy memory of this quirky tale.

The seven plays in the Tales of Unease series were produced by London Weekend Television, an ITV regional station that, after a difficult birth, went on to become a powerhouse of popular drama, with successes including Budgie, Upstairs, Downstairs and Bouquet of Barbed Wire. Those of us who grew up in the South East will remember the announcer telling us every Friday at 5.15pm that it was now time to hand over to LWT’s South Bank headquarters, Kent House, a building that still stands proudly amid the London skyline, looking down on Waterloo Bridge and overseeing some of those it will be entertaining, those commuters parading out of town to the shires for their well-earned weekends.

Tales of Unease: The Old Banger (1970)The series was the first producer credit for Paul Knight, who had begun his television career in the post room at ATV, become an Assistant Floor Manager on the anthology series Love Story, and as one of Head of Scripted Series Stella Richman’s “boys” at Associated Rediffusion, become Associate Producer on another anthology series, Half-Hour Story. He stayed loyal to the anthology series, rounding off an impressive career that included the ornate The Adventures of Black Beauty and the mighty Robin of Sherwood with the excellent Murder in Mind (BBC, 2001-03), a surprise return of the thriller anthology, and one which should have also been its rebirth.

The Old Banger was written by actor Richardson Morgan, who also has a cough and a spit in the opening moments. The drama was his only writing credit. It was directed by Quentin Lawrence, who at the same time was doing a grand job of what would prove to be a much better-remembered LWT series, the merry Catweazle (1970). The Old Banger starred the lugubrious Terence Rigby, an actor who always played very much his own game, and the delightful Pinkie Johnstone (former flatmate of Judi Dench), who the same year gave birth to future RSC director Rachel Kavanaugh.  Watching it now (and I wonder if anyone else has ever watched it in the last 46 years), it is easy to see why, like its titular menace, it has dogged the memories of some of those who saw it. It’s quietly strange and original. Its tone is elusive. In reflection, it’s both amusing and eerie. Tales of Unease: The Old Banger (1970)

John and Susan Partridge are nice people, with a modest house in a west London suburb and a penchant for pigeon racing. But their clapped out Hillman is draining them of money, on this occasion having to be towed home and landing them with a bill for £5 –  more than the car itself is worth, in John’s opinion. They decide to buy a scooter instead, but when they find that sending the old banger to a scrapyard will cost them another £10, John decides instead to dump it on the other side of the city, removing the number-plates so that it can’t be traced back to him. Susan is all for the idea, but when their mechanical friend Eric (Neil McCarthy, expertly playing another of his gentle giants) finds out what they’ve done, he’s appalled, especially since “it had a perfectly good speedo on it”. He decides to retrieve it, but when he gets to the Peckham street it was left in, he finds it has gone, and turns out now to be parked in Camberwell.

Neil McCarthy as EricThen it inexplicably moves again, this time to Pimlico. When Eric attempts to immobilise it, he ends up in hospital after getting trapped under the bonnet.

After visiting him in hospital, the Partridges relax to watch News at Ten, only to see the car in the background of a report. Susan recognises the location as being quite close by. When the pair plot the points of the vehicle’s mysterious journey on a map, they realise that it is on a direct course straight back to their house.Tales of Unease: The Old Banger (1970)

Susan goes upstairs to bed, and screams when she sees from the window that the rusting menace is now parked outside the house.

John decides to sit up all night watching it, but inevitably dozes off. In the morning the couple are delighted to see that the car has gone, and, in celebratory mood, Susan zooms off on the scooter. Alone, John walks into his living room, only to find…

Tales of Unease: The Old Banger (1970)

It’s a stupendously bonkers shot. Susan returns home to find him dismantling the old banger piece by piece, but of course, the vengeful vehicle has the last laugh, trapping them both inside it and killing them.

Laced with a jolly brass and woodwind score that cheerfully fanfares each of the tale’s twists, The Old Banger is adorably droll. Blending comedy, the supernatural and ultimately, death, isn’t the easiest of tasks. Television tended to present its horror with a straight-face in those days; today it prefers to deliver it with a knowing wink. In that sense, this is somewhat ahead of its time, and feels like a more subtle ancestor of Inside No.9, more gentle and less grotesque.Pinkie Johnstone and Terence Rigby

Interestingly, along with many small roles on television, Richardson Morgan worked a number of times with Keith Johnstone, a pioneer of improvisational theatre. In his book, Impro, Johnstone recalls Morgan and mime artist Ben Benison playing a scene in which Morgan is an employee being fired by his boss because his cancer is affecting his performance at work. Johnson described it as “about the cruelest scene I’ve ever seen and the audience were hysterical with laughter. I’ve never heard people laugh more. The actors seemed to be dragging all the audience’s greatest fears into the open, laying out all their insecurities, and the actors absolutely knew what they were doing, and just how slowly to turn the screw”.

Pinkie JohnstoneThe Old Banger is, admittedly, quite a few streets away from that sort of work, but it does suggest that Richardson Morgan’s only television credit could have been just the first breath of an interesting and original voice, one that would have gently explored the couplings of those uneasy bedfellows, comedy and tragedy, in an idiosyncratic way.

But it wasn’t to be. I did attempt to contact Morgan to ask him his memories of his sole half-hour as a television writer. I never heard back. Perhaps, unlike many of those who have seen it, to him The Old Banger is long forgotten.

 

 

A Dreadful And Despairing History

A little-known telling of an oft-told tale.

Few, if any, remember a late-night series of half-hour plays under the cumbersome umbrella title TV TimesConceptions of Murder, broadcast at various points throughout 1970 in several ITV regions, with no fanfare and to little reaction. They were the brainchild of that gentlemanly, imaginative but inconsistent writer, the late Clive Exton. Each of the six episodes took a real-life murder case and tried “to recreate the minds and motives of the killers”. The first episode, The Dreams Of Tim Evans, dealt with the infamous Christie/ Evans case, and is significant because not only was it the first piece of screen drama in Britain based on the matter, (in the theatre, Howard Brenton’s distressing Fringe hit Christie In Love had debuted at the Oval House in 1969, the same year that a drama appeared on German television about the case) but because a year later, Exton expanded his script into the screenplay for the revered movie 10, Rillington Place, which starred Richard Attenborough and John Hurt as Christie and Evans respectively.

The Dreams Of Tim Evans has never been repeated, and never before, to my knowledge, has it been written about. I was intrigued to track it down in the light of the BBC’s recent misfire, Rillington Place, an unnecessary and implausible regurgitation of the 1971 film. Sadly, The Dreams Of Tim Evans is equally disappointing, though it is an interesting historical artifact. Fascinatingly, its executive producer was Peter Wildeblood, who, in the same year the Rillington Place case hit the headlines, was involved in the Montagu-Rivers case, suffering shameful indignities at the hands of the British establishment and later becoming a prominent campaigner for law and prison reform.

In truth, we will never know what passed between John Reginald Halliday Christie and Timothy John Evans in June 1949, in the hours following the murder of Mrs Evans. Both men were liars and fantasists. And both men took all that they knew to the gallows.

IMG_8207The dreadful history of the dreadful, despairing last house on the left, 10 Rillington Place, has probably inspired more words than any other piece of historical true crime except the Jack the Ripper murders. Even by the time Ludovic Kennedy’s major book on the case appeared in 1962, two other books had been written on the subject, The Man On Your Conscience, by Truth editor Michael Eddowes (the book that sparked Kennedy’s interest in the case) and Rupert Furneaux’s The Two Stranglers Of Rillington Place, which took the now unfashionable view that both men were killers, and that the fears of a miscarriage of justice in the case of Evans were ill-founded.

The facts that are not disputed are as follows. Christie, a middle-aged under-achiever with

Hugh Burden as Christie
Hugh Burden as Christie

delusions of grandeur, occupied the basement flat at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, with his wife, Ethel. In his early life Christie had a number of convictions for violence and theft, but in the Second World War was able to enroll as a War Reserve Constable. While alone in the house one afternoon in 1943, he murdered a woman for sexual gratification, and buried her in the back garden. He killed another the following year, lured there by  false claims that he had some medical training and could treat her for catarrh.

Six years passed, apparently without incident, until in 1949 Tim and Beryl Evans moved into the top floor flat with their baby daughter, Geraldine. Evans was a van driver, with a low IQ (he was not illiterate, as has been claimed, since he was able to read road signs) and was partial to making up stories about himself. The marriage was turbulent, especially due to Beryl’s poor money management, and a number of violent arguments kept neighbours awake and led to police visits.

Don Hawkins as Timothy Evans
Don Hawkins as Evans

Beryl became pregnant a second time, and sometime after this, Evans left London and stayed with relatives in Merthyr Tydfil. One afternoon he walked into the local police station and said “I want to give myself up. I’ve disposed of my wife”. He went on to tell them he had arrived home one evening to find her dead, having taken something to try and abort her child, and in panic he had put her body down the drain outside the house. The police checked and found the drain was empty. Evans then said “I only said that to protect a man called Christie. Now I’ll tell you the truth”.

He then made a long, detailed statement saying that Christie had offered to perform an abortion on Beryl thanks to his medical knowledge, but when Evans had arrived home, was told she had died, that for their own sakes they should dispose of her body and say nothing, and that the baby could be looked after for the present by a childless couple Christie knew who lived locally. A superficial search of the house revealed some newspaper clippings in Evans’ flat about a murder case, and in the wash-house, the strangled bodies of both Beryl and baby Geraldine.

Evans was brought back to London, and when he was told of the discovery of both bodies, simply replied “yes”. He then signed a short statement saying that he had killed his wife and child.Children playing in Rillington Place

By the time the case reached the Old Bailey, he was denying this last statement, insisting his second statement was true and that Christie was to blame. Despite Christie’s previous criminal record, he made a better impression on the jury than Evans, and Evans was found guilty of the murder of his daughter, and sentenced to death. In the period before his execution he made no attempt to appeal, and reportedly was cheerful and showed no remorse.

What was not known at the trial was that Christie had already strangled two women and would go on to strangle four more, his wife and three prostitutes that he lured back to Rillington Place. The killings took place over a four month period at the start of 1953, after which, penniless and with the ground floor of the house now a tomb, he left. He wandered around London in a daze until he was caught. He confessed to every crime except that of the baby, but gave vague, untrustworthy accounts. He was hanged after a short trial.

Christie and EvansLudovic Kennedy’s crusading book, the 1971 film and the BBC’s Rillington Place have all taken the view that two stranglers both living in the same house is too much of a coincidence. Exton’s script here does the same. But while 10 Rillington Place works brilliantly as a mood piece, horribly evoking a tumbledown London of the post-war era and sustaining a mood of evil and futility in every scene (the film was shot in the actual street, and sparingly used a devil-driven, prickly score by John Dankworth), it was made as a rebuff to calls for a reinstatement of the death penalty, and, like the book it sprang from, is selective in its presentation of the facts.

The Dreams Of Tim Evans, sadly, suffers  when compared to the film into which it grew.  It is essentially a longer version of the central scene in the film in which Evans arrives home to find his wife dead, and Christie manages to persuade him to enter into a conspiracy of silence for both their sakes. That quiet, forgotten actor, Hugh Burden, is, alarmingly, probably the closest to Christie physically of any actor who has played him, and clearly imitates various facial expressions of the killer learned from photographs. Unfortunately, he maintains his native soft Welsh accent for the part rather than attempting Christie’s whispering Yorkshire tones. Like Attenborough’s, his Christie is prissy and puritanical (“there’s no need to use language, lad”), and quietly manipulative.

Christie and EvansDon Hawkins’ performance as Evans, however, seems unable to make up its mind what it is. He appears to barely react to his wife’s death, and is such a low-key presence in the play that one certainly struggles to imagine this Evans being capable of having violent altercations with his wife.

Despite the studio setting and the unsubtle colour of 1970s videotape, which does inevitably prettify the recreation of the house, there are some neat moments. When Christie reappears at the beginning of the second half of the play, he lurks in the back of the frame while Evans, in the foreground, is veiled behind a grimy curtain; at this point, Evans , without knowing it, holds all the power. He could go to the police and Christie would be charged with Beryl’s murder. But his mind is a fog, to himself, to us and to Christie. Later, the roles are reversed, as Evans stands lost and helpless in the background, asking Christie, now the one shrouded by that dark curtain, what he is to do.

Christie and EvansThe play’s title, and its core, come from a sequence in which Evans indulges himself in fantasy, telling Christie that he intends to move to a house in Hampstead, one of those “with gardens you can sit in”. But whereas John Hurt’s Evans was defiant, a hopelessly self-deluded windbag trying and failing to suggest he was better than those around him, and aggressively touchy when challenged, this Evans is almost lifeless. It doesn’t ring true. Nor does the play (or the film’s) off-screen insistence that Christie would go on to murder the baby. Why would he do this rather than simply abandon her? Why do something that he would then have to explain away to Evans, or, if Evans found out, would undoubtedly destroy any loyalty Evans might have for Christie?

One powerful piece of evidence that has recently been revealed is that when Evans was in the cells at Notting Hill police station, having been charged with murder, PC Leonard Trevallion asked him why he had killed his baby. Evans replied: “because without its mother it kept crying all the time and I couldn’t stand it”. (Trevallion gave a final interview detailing his eventful life and career to the Imperial War Museum; his reminiscences can be heard here.)High Burden as Christie

That Christie murdered Mrs Evans seems highly likely. Evans’s detailed description of Christie professing medical knowledge is damning evidence simply because it tallies with what we know were the methods Christie used to attract other victims. However, attributing the murder of Geraldine to Christie too strikes me as something that has been done for no other reason than convenience when trying to argue a miscarriage of justice, since it was actually Geraldine’s murder that Evans was convicted of.

The Dreams Of Tim Evans is a disappointingly mild piece of drama about a devastating situation. It fails to do justice to its subject, and while we will probably never hear the last word on the Christie case, this attempt at the story is unlikely ever to be heard again.

In respectable 1950s Britain, people perhaps were much more prepared to be reassured that a man hanged in their name had indeed been guilty of murder. Today, however, we live in an iconoclastic age, a  time of suspicion, distrust, cynicism and conspiracy theories, and are eager to embrace any suggestion that shadowy, uncaring authorities behave corruptly, callously and at the expense of their subjects. I’ve always believed that the truth lies somewhere in between, in this case and in many others.