A teenage girl is plagued by visions of witchcraft and burnings. RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES looks at a series one highlight from Shadows: The Witch’s Bottle.
Shadows: The Witch’s Bottle
BROADCAST: 17 September 1975
STARRING: Wendy Gifford, Neville Barber, Georgina Kean, Jasper Jacob
WRITER: Stewart Farrar
DIRECTOR: Vic Hughes
Siblings Jill and Steve (Kean and Jacob) go to stay at the remote cottage of their doctor uncle Mark (Barber), but on arrival find the place deserted. As the two investigate the surroundings, Jill finds herself subject to unnerving visions, initially when she approaches a dead-looking tree and hears an echoing scream as a gust of wind hits her.
Trying to rationalise it as perhaps a plane passing overhead, Jill’s nerves are on edge nevertheless but the mood is broken by the arrival of Catherine (Gifford), the next door neighbour who advises them that their Uncle has been called away for the evening. Introduced to Jill, Catherine takes the girl’s hands and cryptically says “Yes…”
“Yes what?” says Steve.
“Just yes…” replies Catherine. “Sleep well,” she says as she leaves but Jill does anything but, haunted by a dream of the mysterious tree and of being engulfed in flames.
Uncle Mark having returned by morning, Jill seems to have gone out early but at breakfast Mark regales Steve with the tale behind the tree: 300 years previously, with accusations of witchcraft rife across the land, an unfortunate local girl was burned alive below it and since then, a leaf has never appeared on the tree, and yet it seems unable to completely die.
Meanwhile, Jill is next door with Catherine, who it transpires is a keen herbalist: Busily preparing a concoction of unknown purpose, she gives Jill her own lowdown on the story, with the revelation that the girl’s mother was drowned by none other than the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins who (supposedly for the good of the girl’s soul) made the daughter watch the mother’s ordeal.
Devastated by what she had witnessed, the girl cursed aloud the entire village, every man, woman and child.
The girl’s name? Jill…
I’ll leave it there in describing this series one highlight, as a touch of folk-horror makes its first impression on Shadows. The Witch’s Bottle (its title explained in the story’s conclusion) is also arguably the first instalment that explicitly sets out to really put the shivers up the audience, having gently broken them in with the first two tales although the story’s end tries to temper this with a half-joking, half-eerily ambiguous parting shot.
The studio-bound production could be a hindrance for a tale with some of its action focused on a garden, but the setting created indoors at Teddington (Bill Palmer is credited as the production designer) turns this limitation to its advantage: It adds a disorienting, unreal edge to proceedings, like something from a twisted fairy tale and stylistically captures some of the same feel later employed for The Company Of Wolves (1984).
Not only marking a high point for Shadows’ first run, The Witch’s Bottle can hold its head up as a benchmark example for the entire series.
TRIVIA POINTS: Wendy Gifford would appear soon in the Tyne Tees creepy sitcom for kids, Nobody’s House (1976).
Georgina Kean would take a lead role in Brit-horror Killer’s Moon (1978) but had disappeared from the screen by the mid 1980’s.
Vic Hughes had previously been a producer for the BBC’s science magazine show Tomorrow’s World (1965-2016) but would take the Thames children’s department further into strange realms as the producer of The Feathered Serpent (1976-78) before taking over the reins of The Tomorrow People (1973-79).