Friday, 14 March 2008
Murrain by Nigel Kneale aired 1975 as part of ATV's 'Against the Crowd' season of plays.
This is a superb example of Kneale's art. To the casual observer, Kneale writes about the supernatural, but in actual fact the writer held such mystical beliefs in contempt. Kneale uses the tricks of supernatural fiction but what he actually is writing about is all perfectly plausible and can be explained in scientific terms. The fact that so many of his stories are set in every day surroundings adds to their power. In this play, everything which happens could, feasibly, be explained by both the villagers' view of events, or the more rational reasoning of the vet. Even at the end, the viewer is left in doubt.
SPOILER ALERT: This, as well as the following post 'Baby' are now available on the Beasts DVD collection.
The scene is a gnarly northern hamlet, where a vet (David Simeon) arrives to tell farmer Mably that he still doesn't know the cause of an illness affecting his pigs. As he approaches the farm, several of the hands are sweeping the road.
The farmer is hostile to the vet, and following the short consultation over the animals, takes him to the local stores, where the onwers' child has been sick in bed for the past five weeks - illness also unexplained.
Mably goes on to tell Simeon that an old woman, Mrs Clemson, is the cause of both illnesses - a present of a jar of jam has also resulted in the crippling of one of his farm hands, while the storekeeper's child was caught playing in Mrs Clemson's garden. He wants Simeon to take his bag, filled with the dust brushed from the road (which all in the hamlet have passed over) and tip it over the 'witch's' head.
Simeon is indignant, but concedes to do do before tipping the bag on the floor and running up to Mrs Clemon's cottage. Here he finds a lonely old woman, who is without water, and being denied food from the village store, 'They're trying to starve me, they want me to die', she says, and our sympathies. along with Simon's are instantly transferred to her.
He promises her a visit from the social services and attempts to buy her some groceries from the local stores, under the guise that he is buying himself some provisions on his way home, but is rumbled by the angry locals. The shopkeeper's wife shrieks in horror after realising she has handled Mrs Clemson's money.
The following day Simeon returns with a box of groceries he bought in town. As he is unpacking the goods, he gets his first feeling of unease about the woman's cottage when he discovers a hand-made doll on a shelf (one of the farm hands has already alluded to the 'witch' using her magic on her hand-crafted dolls).
As he leaves the cottage, the farmer and his mob take him to the stores where the storekeeper's wife is now shown to have developed an illness similar to her sons as well as having swollen, reddened, hands. He remonstrates against the gathering who insist that her predicament is a result of handling Clemson's money, which leads to the enraged group heading towards the old woman's cottage intent on their revenge.
Simeon follows, but only to see Mrs Clemson meet them on the path and utter a curse to the advancing Mably who drops down dead.
As Simeon assess the situation he concludes that the farmer died of a heart attact - natural causes - due to the excitement. The farm hands are unconvinced and tentatively collect the body.
As a shaken Simeon turns once more to look at Mrs Clemson, she exclaims "YES!"
A wonderful collection of Kneale's early fiction can be found in the early collection 'Tomato Cain', which, although out of print, can be found on Abebooks, Amazon and occasionally eBay. After this short spell as a writer he went on to devote himself to screenwriting, most notably as the creator of Quatermass.