SIMON BALL looks at the classic 1970s BBC television production of Schalcken the Painter, based on a Sheridan Le Fanu short story
Time to turn the key in the lock, open up the crypt and take a trip back to 1979 as we exhume Schalken the Painter from the depths of the Telly Tomb.
Yes, I’m ancient enough to remember when it was first broadcast. Late, on the night of 23 December 1979, the only light in my bedroom the flickering of a tiny black and white portable, it wasn’t just the winter cold that had me shivering.
The mood for Schalken the Painter is set, by focussing upon one of his paintings (Godfried Schalken 1647-1708, was a Dutch genre and portrait artist). A woman in her nightshift peers alluringly from the canvas, but behind her is the artist drawing his sword. From there we cut to the studio of Gerrit Dou (Maurice Denham), the young Schalken (Jeremy Clyde) is one of Dou’s students and he is in love with Dou’s niece Rose (Cheryl Kennedy).
But Schalken isn’t the only one interested in Rose. The cadaverous figure of Vanderhausen (John Justin), who has this disturbing habit of suddenly materialising and then vanishing, offers Dou a small fortune for Rose’s hand. Dou is so short sighted that he can’t see how creepy Vanderhausen is, so a wedding contract is set despite Rose’s reluctance. Schalken turns down the opportunity to elope with Rose, claiming that he will buy back the contract for double as soon as he is a great master painter. So Rose heads off to the church only she and Vanderhausen never arrive.
Some time later a pounding on the front door tears Schalken and Dou away from their work. It’s Rose, still in her wedding finery; she pleads for food and wine, and not to be left alone. Naturally when Schalken goes to get a lamp, the door slams and once opened Rose has vanished. Peering out of the open window all Schalken can see below are a trail of bubbles erupting from the canal.
Time passes and Dou dies. After the funeral, Schalken stays on at the church and is tempted into the crypt. He follows a light, which naturally leads to Rose in her nightshift, he proffers his purse, presumably to buy back the wedding contract. Rose takes it, empties it onto the floor, then pulls back the curtains of a four-poster bed revealing the naked figure of Vanderhasen rising from the pillows to couple with her. Waking later on the crypt floor, Schalken discovers the bed was actually a tomb with the inscription “United with his beloved wife”
Schalken the Painter is a deeply atmospheric slow burn of a chiller, not to mention a bizarre hybrid of documentary and drama. Director Lesley Megahey was running the BBC’s flagship arts programme Omnibus at the time and somehow managed to get funding from BBC drama and arts to make the film, which he sold as a replacement for the traditional Christmas MR James ghost story. As such it is a real visual feast with every scene lit and composed in the way of 17th century Dutch master painters such as Vermeer or Rembrandt (watch out for a cameo by Rembrandt in the early part of the film). While it was visually rich in black and white the recent BFI full colour Blu-Ray re-release is really sumptuous. And yes it still pulls a scary punch.
Based up a short story by J Sheridan Le Fanu, (the man who put the lesbian into vampires with Carmilla), Schalcken the Painter dates from a period of great BBC creativity when producers could get all kind of weird stuff green-lighted without interference from the accountants and marketing men. I doubt that such a creative project would get made there today.