(Last updated 1/02/00)
The Turn of the Screw

"a story, which has tremendous power to inspire fear and fascination"

UK: December 26, 1999 at 9 pm on ITV
US: February 27, 2000 on Masterpiece Theatre (PBS)


 Synopsis  Cast  Production
Story
Reviews

 
Synopsis 
A young woman arrives at the London home of a bachelor, to be interviewed for her first appointment as a governess. She is apprehensive—she has never been alone with a man outside her own home.

The Master is charming, and quite sweeps the young Miss off her feet. He offers her an attractive salary to look after his young nephew and niece at his country mansion. But he has a strange stipulation. She must never bother him about the children, on any account.

The governess is impressed with her new responsibility, by the beauty of the children, the grandeur of the house, but most of all by the charm of their uncle. But as she settles into life in the country, sinister things start to happen.

She is convinced she has seen an unpleasant looking man in the house. When she describes him to the housekeeper Mrs Grose recognises him as Peter Quint, the Master's old valet. But Mrs Grose explains that Peter Quint is dead. Then the governess sees another figure—Miss Jessel— the children's former governess and Quint's lover, who died as a result of Quint's seduction and betrayal.

When the children, Miles and Flora, behave in such a way as to suggest that they are aware of, and possibly even in league with the apparitions, the governess thinks they must have been corrupted.  She feels she alone can save them.  The stage is set for a battle of good and evil.

 
Cast 
Coin Firth  as The Master
Colin Firth is set to charm viewers with his portrayal of another classic literary character. He wooed thousands as the dashing Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, now he's back in period costume to play the charismatic Master in Henry James' famous ghost story.
"The characterisation of the Master is very much a creation of this adaptation. In the book he is a presence by implication. But the young governess is so motivated by her feelings for him that we have tried to establish that relationship in this adaptation," explains Colin.

"It is one of the most argued over books of this century. Are the ghosts real, or is the governess psychotic. The Master manipulates this girl and tries to make use of  what he perceives as his power to exploit her vulnerability."

But he admits he is not a fan of watching costume drama.

"Despite my reputation for costume drama, I am not drawn to watching it on television. But I  have not steered away from it as a result of playing Darcy. I don't want to be held hostage to  that. If I am offered something irresistible, and it means wearing a costume like Darcy's, then I will do it," says Colin.

"In some ways there is more artifice in wearing modern dress than period costume. If I am putting on breeches, I know I am putting on a costume. If I am putting on jeans and a t-shirt for a role you have to be more specific. They're not my jeans and t-shirt. When we made Fever Pitch for instance we had to decide whether black jeans were in vogue at that time."

Colin says he certainly found the Henry James story irresistible.  "I love The Turn of the Screw. I love the mystery of it. When ghost stories are told well, they are brilliant. But they are incredibly rare. It is a perpetually misjudged form of story telling. "The Turn of the Screw is one of the models of ghost story telling. It is a gripping portrait of a  person's psychology. The overwhelming majority of people who attempt such stories fall into  the trap of wanting to explain everything. The golden rule of ghost stories is don't reveal all. And that is the beauty of this Henry James story."

Colin recalls reading the book, and watching the chilling film The Haunting. The terrifying Don't Look Now, is one of his favourite films, he says.

"I like the mood of a ghost story. It is perfect for a wintry night, sitting by the fire, watching a ghost story which gives you a chill and provokes the imagination. If I am here at Christmas that is what I will be watching,"says Colin.

He says he doesn't believe in ghosts, but admits he had some "uncanny and inexplicable" experiences. "When I was a teenager I dreamt up all sorts of things, but as I've got older I've found explanations for those experiences."

Jodhi May as Miss - The Governess

"I am a great fan of Henry James' work. The Turn of the Screw is one of those rare gothic ghost stories which has a lot more depth to it because so much is about the psychology of the main character, her paranoia and fears, and typically with a Henry James story, about suppressed sexual desire.
"My character —Miss—is quite dark and complicated, and it is her psychological complexity which attracted me to the role.  She is at odds with the moral and religious values she has been brought up with, but she does not have the vocabulary to express her own desires and impulses. Henry James is renowned for making his heroines incredibly complicated, fascinating and full of contradictions within their own identities, which come into conflict with the society of their time."

"I remember listening to a radio adaptation of the story years ago, which was genuinely scary. The prospect of seeing people who you know in your own mind cannot possibly be appearing before you is terrifying. What is most terrifying for Miss is that she sees something which other people don’t.

"I saw her character as somebody who had to believe she was not wrong, irrational or mad about what she could see, but that she was actually an incredibly rational and judicious person."

Jodhi will be the envy of thousands of fans of the dashing Mr Darcy, for her scenes with the man who set women's hearts a flutter in Pride and Prejudice, Colin Firth. Colin plays the Master, who charms the young governess.

"Miss is at an age where she is becoming more sexually aware, and she has an infatuation with the master. But it exists purely within the realms of fantasy, and she is not in a social position where a relationship between them could become a reality. When she meets him it is the first time she has been outside the family home, and sat alone with a man without a chaperone."

On set Jodhi was "chaperoned " by the production team as the intimate scenes between Miss and the Master were filmed. The Miss is driven by her feelings for the Master. Her thoughts are dominated by images of him. She is motivated by the responsibility the Master has placed on her.

"Colin Firth was lovely, a complete joy to work with. But he was only on set for a day," Jodhi laments.

Pam Ferris as Mrs Grose

Pam plays the kindly Mrs Grose, a woman with a heart of gold, whose illiteracy is more than compensated for by her loyal service over many years at the Master's country mansion.

She is a big fan of Henry James' work.  "Henry James anticipated the whole Freud thing. The books I like to read about psychology refer to James' work because of the way it was ahead of its time in terms of understanding sexuality. I am interested in psychology because it is my job to understand what makes people tick," says Pam.

"I think our interpretation of the story is very faithful to the original. Sometimes with costume drama you do have to change things for a modern audience because you don't want them to be misinterpreted."

Pam Ferris had the shock of her life as she peered through the trees and saw the ghostly image of a woman  in flowing gown as she was filming The Turn of the Screw.  "We were filming a scene where Jodhi May’s character can see a ghost, but my character, Mrs Grose, cannot. We were busy setting up the scene on difficult terrain by a lake, building tension, fear and anxiety. Unbeknown to me the actress who plays the ghost had been put into position amongst the reeds," Pam explains.

"I had never seen this woman before, so when I turned round and saw her among the reeds I nearly had a heart attack. I thought I was hallucinating. She was so convincing, as if she had leapt out of the pages of the book, that my heart was in my mouth."

Joe Sowerbutts as Miles

The 11-year-old makes his television debut in the role of Miles—one of the two children whose souls are being corrupted by ghosts.

"I didn't find the filming scary, and I liked the actor who played Quint, he wasn't spooky at all. I remember mum telling me when she played Betty in The Crucible she had to pretend to be scared, and scream as loud as she could. She was more concerned about screaming loudly than being frightened. That is how felt when I was filming The Turn of the Screw. I was concentrating so much on getting every thing right there wasn't time to be frightened of the story."

 Grace Robinson as Flora

"It was very exciting on the film set. I loved dressing up in the costumes. I don't wear dresses much at home, I prefer trousers. Every body was very kind to me, and I didn't feel scared once. The only thing that worried me was that I had to say 'you bitch'. I know it's a naughty word, I just hope my teachers won’t hear me saying it."
 Jason Salkey plays Peter Quint and Caroline Pegg plays Miss Jessel.
 
Production Story
Producer Martin Pope says: "This is one of the great ghost stories, and one of Henry James' finest achievements.  By combining a ghost story with a deep psychological story of a young woman, James created an amazing world for his story—a story, which has tremendous power  to inspire fear and fascination.

"We've tried to be faithful to James' intentions to grip the audience with a powerful ghost story and use it to explore a young woman’s dilemma.

"I hope the twists and turns the film gives to the tradition of the Christmas ghost story will appeal to a wide audience."

Writer Nick Dear resisted the use of special effects to create the spine chilling moments in his screenplay.

“When I sat down to write this I tried to find what it was that sent shivers down my spine. There is no point in trying to manufacture horror effects when you don’t find them frightening yourself,” says Nick.  “From what I know of people who claim to have seen ghosts they talk about a real presence in the room, they don’t talk about odd effects.  I had always had a strong idea that the most scary aspect of the ghosts in this story was that they appear as real people.  I think what makes it frightening is that we give the audience the information that the people are really dead, and that is more frightening than giving the audience special effects.”

“I decided I would make the screenplay straight, and not fiddle around with it, to do as much justice to the original story as possible. I wanted to play on the ambiguity in Henry James' novel as to whether the ghosts are real or figments of the governess' imagination.”

In preparing the scripts he researched Henry James' work, and was intrigued to discover that in correcting the original manuscripts for The Turn of the Screw, James had actually made details less clear, and increased the level of ambiguity about what was real and what was not.

Nick says he was also interested in the psychological process the governess travels through, and her “overdeveloped standard of Christian values and how children should behave.”

Set in Victorian England, the drama was filmed on locations in London and Thame Park in Oxfordshire.  Interiors for the Master's House were shot at Syon Park, Brentford, Middlesex.


 
 

About Henry James

Henry James was inspired to write the “tale” as he called The Turn of the Screw after staying with his friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury, E.W. Benson, at his country residence at Addington Park. James says the Archbishop told him a “small and gruesome spectral story” that he had been told years before concerning dead servants and children. Explaining how he wrote the story James said: “I was asked for something seasonable by the promoters of a periodical dealing in the time-honoured Christmas toy.”

The Turn of the Screw was first published in serial form in an American periodical, Collier’s, in 1898. It appeared in book form and won glowing praise from reviewers:

“One of the most engrossing and terrifying ghost stories we have ever read”  (Athenaeum)

“The reader is bound to the end by the spell- an imaginative masterpiece”  (The Critic)

“It is a most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale, like an Elizabethan tragedy. I am greatly impressed by it.”  (Oscar Wilde)

The story which James described in a letter to his neighbour in Rye, H.G.Wells, as a “pot boiler” has puzzled and fascinated readers for decades. It provoked much debate among literary critics over the ambiguity of whether the ghosts were real merely hallucinations of the governess.
 

Reviews
The Daily Mail (12/18/99) - 5 stars
The jewel in ITV's drama crown this Christmas is this handsome, impressively atmospheric adaptation of Henry James' chilling ghost story. Jodhi May stars as Miss, the governess hired to look after two children in a grand, isolated country mansion. She is hired, in a scene that plays more like a seduction than a business transaction, by the Master, a debonair bachelor played by (swoon) Colin Firth. It's a pleasure to see him back in period dress, though the high Victorian gear isn't as fetching as Mr Darcy' shirt and breeches. Miss is charmed by the Master and delighted with her posting. The house is beautiful and the housekeeper is friendly and the children seem charming, However before long, Miss starts having some very strange experiences...

The Times (12/18/99)
It is a stunningly beautiful production, all Vermeer interiors, if only the governess did not look like a cetacean (Dinosaur) hoovering up krill.... Intense attraction to the Master (Colin 'naked Darcy' Firth) is captured with a slightly open mouth.... [The plot should be] familiar from its many stagings. [There are ] four distinctive characters, plus two apparitions.
 

The Times (12/27/99) by Paul Hoggart
At two hours, The Turn of the Screw had the opposite problem. Henry James's story relies on generating a supernatural frisson, and the two children, Miles and Flora, had a perfect blend of innocence and sinister precocity. Perhaps it was because the evil, malevolent ghost of Peter Quint reminded me of Wurzel Gummidge. Perhaps it was because Jodhi May as the Governess went through the film with her mouth ajar and was clearly bonkers, but the hairs on the back of my neck refused to stand up. Her anguish was plain.

Was she really seeing ghosts? Were the children possessed? "For heaven's sake, woman," I shouted at her, "phone a friend!"

The Birmingham Post (12/23/99) by Graham Keal
Jodhi May isn't the first and won't be the last young woman to look longingly at Colin 'Mr Darcy' Firth with barely recognised stirrings of suppressed sexual desire.  Mind you, in her role as the Governess in ITV's classy, scalp-tingling new Boxing Day version of the great Henry James ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, she's the only one who gets the chance. He appears in just one scene, alone with her. [...]

Firth's single scene casts him as the Master, the rich, unmarried young(ish) man left with sole responsibility for his orphaned nephew and niece, Miles and Sarah, a responsibility he wants to be rid of.

But as the Governess—referred to only as Miss throughout—she is all of a flutter with her new employer's flattering, manipulative attentions: 'Miss is at an age where she is coming more sexually aware, and she has an infatuation with the Master.  But it exists purely in the realms of fantasy. She is not in a social position where a relationship between them could become a reality. When she meets him it is the first time she has been outside the family home and sat alone with a man, without a chaperone.'

It is a fantasy that you will not find fleshed out in the original story, where Miss's infatuation with the Master is only hinted at.

The opening scene between them is a clever device by Nick Dear, who wrote the screenplay, to make plain what is no more than a subtle backdrop to the book. The Master's desire is to recruit a governess who agrees to the stipulation that she will take full responsibility for the children's upbringing at his distant country seat and never, on any account, trouble him with their news.

Miss arrives at the house to a rousing welcome from kindly, maternal housekeeper Mrs Grose (a perfect role for Pam Ferris) and finds she has pride of place in a superb mansion, with two delightful children as her companions and pupils.

But the previous governess, Miss Jessel, committed suicide, and the Master's former valet, Peter Quint, has left a malign influence in the house since his own death.

When Miss starts seeing a mysterious man and woman whom she later learns to be the ghosts of Jessel and Quint, she is soon convinced that the children see the ghosts too and are in some kind of evil, secret pact with them.  She believes only she can save their souls. Jodhi's wide-eyed looks prove very suitable for the goggling horror with which she greets these apparitions.

The question for viewers is, are her visions real and is she right about the children, or is she a hysterical woman on the verge of insanity?

'I saw her character as somebody who had to believe she was not wrong, irrational or mad about what she could see, but that she was actually an incredibly rational and judicious person,' says Jodhi. [...]

The Turn of the Screw... is a beautifully restrained exercise in suspense. If you want to see something this Christmas to make the hairs on your neck bristle, this one's for you.

TimeOut by Tom Howard
...Henry James' 1898 ghost story 'The Turn Of The Screw', adapted by Nick Dear. Unfortunately, as is often the case with period dramas and is certainly the case with this one, a classic novel does not necessarily result in a classic piece of TV drama.

Jodhi May plays the Governess, sent to a country house to look after the niece  and nephew of a London gent she refers to as the Master (Colin Firth) during the summer. While going about her duties the nameless Governess is spooked by ghostly apparitions and the strange behaviour of the seemingly innocent children, Miles and Flora.

It's a bizarre tale that is not particularly easy to get a handle on even in the book, so it will be confusing to the average viewer who tunes in without being familiar with Henry James’ work. Sexual tension between the Governess and the Master is hinted at in the opening scene, yet this is then virtually ignored. Her increasingly unhinged behaviour seems absurdly melodramatic. The background to her character and the motivations for her behaviour are thin on the ground, and Jodhi May is not a good enough actress to suggest any. Ultimately, her blank bewilderment becomes increasingly irritating.

Oh, and Darcy fans: if ITV’s marketing has prompted you to tune in in anticipation of a hefty dose of Colin Firth, you will be disappointed. He’s on screen for a grand total of five minutes. Better to wait for the movie version, 'The Innocents', at 1.35am on C4.

The Birmingham Post (12/27/99) by Mike Davies
A sparse, stripped back The Turn Of The Screw (Carlton) provided the annual ghost tale. The decision to make manifest the evil spirits, to ignore the governess's sexual repression and the possibility of the children's mental unbalance would have upset fans of the novel's psychological textures, but with an excellent turn from Jodhi May (though a five-minute cameo hardly warranted Colin Firth's star billing) it still delivered chilling suspense.

Scotland on Sunday (1/2/00)
[I]t was the unexpected Boxing Day treat, The Turn of the Screw (ITV), a mesmerising two-hour adaptation of Henry James' ghost story, which matched opulence and clarity to generate a genuine frisson of terror without resorting to the usual Hollywood-style bucketloads of SFX.

...The Turn of the Screw proved similarly adroit at sucking the viewer into its grip. Adapted by Nick Dear and directed by Ben Bolt, this story of the artless young governess (Jodhi May) being employed by a gentleman (Colin Firth) to look after his two children, Miles and Flora, reeked with unspoken terror and brooding menace from the outset and built up towards a climax which was shatteringly portrayed.

Until now, previous variants on this creepy Jamesian tale—as in The Innocents, which Channel 4 screened, presumably by chance, only a few hours later—have revolved around one central question: is the governess mad or deranged? But here, the impressive May, hiking up the paranoia and apprehension without resorting to hammy over-indulgence, left us in absolutely no doubt about her fears for her charges as spectral presences loomed ever nastier in the woodshed.

The Observer (1/2/00)
For Pride and Prejudice fans who didn't know the story, I suspect that seeing Colin Firth smouldering Firthishly at the beginning of Boxing Day's The Turn of the Screw constituted an almighty tease because, of course, he was never seen again. Fortunately, this was a very superior, spooky adaptation of the Henry James chiller with Jodhi May, as the governess, admirably handling her character's leisurely, sun-dappled spiral into haunted paranoia without ever resorting to melodrama, so we didn't miss Firth too much.

Nick Dear's screenplay hinted, modishly, at some messily repressed and righteously God-fearing Victorian sexuality, while the children playing the governess's two charges, Miles and Flora, were not half as revolting as they might have been, given that they were in almost every scene and may (or may not) have been demonically inclined. The least enviable part, however, went to Pam Ferris as the housekeeper, Miss Grose primarily a reactive, unflashy role, forced to feed off lines delivered by May and the children.

Watching The Turn of the Screw made me realise how refreshing it is to go cold turkey with old-fashioned spine-tingling terror on Boxing Day. Not only aren't there enough 'Oooh! Beeee-hind You! Aaargh, No, Don't You Go Down That Corridor in The Dark!' ghost stories on TV any more, but there can never be enough antidotes to the kind of smug Yuletide cosiness which involves Charlotte Church telling viewers, with all the irony that only a 13-year-old is incapable of mustering, to go and buy her CD before singing 'Let your dreams be wings and fly as far as a star' on Des O'Connor (oh, I will, Charlotte I will).

Interesting, though, that the commercials punctuating The Turn of the Screw were so feminine (Fiat Punto, shampoo, lime leather horrorshow sofas from DFS ). Are ghost stories and Dickensian adaptations (and, come to that, Colin Firth) really only aimed at gurly-wurlies?

Variety (2/24/00) by Sherri Linden
Filmed countless times for both the bigscreen and the tube, Henry James' timeless ghost story still carries a provocative charge. This straightforward,  solid adaptation for Masterpiece Theatre brings nothing especially new to the rich material, but fine performances and a seamless production deliver the requisite chills. There may be no burning reason for yet another screen version of the masterful short novel, other than the profound pull of  the story, but perhaps that’s reason enough.

Russell Baker’s introductory comments shed some light on the author’s state of mind when he penned “The Turn of the Screw,” but a century later, its central questions remain wide open to interpretation: Are the events unfolding at country house, Bly, visitations from the other  side, the expression of a repressed young woman’s hysteria, the effects of child abuse or the machinations of a murderously manipulative household?

Script by Nick Dear places slight emphasis on the central character’s unexpressed sexuality with more-than-glancing suggestions of her complicity in the dark doings; telepic makes quite clear the young governess’ (Jodhi May) attraction to the bachelor (Colin Firth) who hires her to take care of his orphaned nephew and niece.

Thesps fully exploit the brief scene of flirtation and foreboding, the only one in which the two characters meet. Firth is convincing as the absentee uncle who has “not a penny worth of paternal understanding” and who insists on not being troubled once the new governess assumes her post. 

May’s blushing young parson’s daughter thrills at his physical closeness, even as she wonders  about the enormity of the responsibility, her first job and the circumstances of her predecessor’s death.

No sooner is she installed as head of the estate than 10-year-old Miles (Joe Sowerbutts) is expelled from school for unstated reasons, and specters of the former governess and another dead servant start making appearances.

The (unnamed) new governess is certain that Miles and his younger sister (Grace Robinson),
disturbingly well behaved and as picture-perfect as two kids can be, are also aware of the presence of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, and are under their corrupting spell. 

As she pieces together her conspiracy theory, housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Pam Ferris) serves as the young woman’s sounding board, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes doubting.

In its final stages, this is a two-hander, the story reaching its ultimate crisis in the faceoff between
the governess and her increasingly defiant charge Miles.

The actors play up the confrontation, and the relationship as a whole, for every ominous ambiguity they’re worth. May is a compelling presence as the devout young woman who,  convinced she’s come face to face with evil, is determined to save her “innocent babies” from the ill intentions of the dead lovers. 

And as the ultra-polite, “Hamlet”-quoting sprig who addresses his governess as “my dear,” Sowerbutts conveys just the right mix of boyish charm and unnerving knowingness.

Ferris, Firth and Robinson provide strong support.

Under Ben Bolt’s steady direction, this telling of the mystery may lack the stylish, atmospheric horror of the 1961 Deborah Kerr starrer “The Innocents,” perhaps the finest film version of the
story, but it is nonetheless a polished rendition of the haunting, enigmatic tale. 

Pat Campbell’s production design, David Odd’s cinematography and Sheena Napier’s costumes evoke the idyllic period setting, often in sunny contrast to the story’s psychological shadow realm. The music soundtrack by Adrian Johnston is effective and unobtrusive; like everything else in this production, it refuses to go for the obvious. 

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