Film - The Woman in Black

Blu-ray cover - silhouette of woman in graveyard

Available on Blu-ray from 10th August, Ren Zelen revisited The Woman in Black TV movie from 1989...


Director: Herbert Wise
Writers: Nigel Kneale (screenplay) based on the book by Susan Hill
Starring: Adrian Rawlins, Bernard Hepton, David Daker, Fiona Walker, William Simons, Claire Holman, David Ryall, Pauline Moran


Many years before the 2012 movie version of The Woman in Black heralded in the return of Hammer Film Productions and provided a homage to Hammer's old-school, gothic horrors, Susan Hill’s popular ghost story was adapted for the television screen by the ITV Network in the UK. That first version of The Woman in Black was made in 1989 and directed by Herbert Wise with Adrian Rawlins in the starring role.

For those still unfamiliar with the story it is set in the mid-1920s and concerns a young London solicitor called Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlings) who is tasked by Sweetman (David Ryall), the senior partner in the law firm where he works, to travel to the coastal market-town of Crythin Gifford in North East England. There he must attend the funeral and settle the estate of Alice Drablow, a reclusive widow and a longstanding client of the firm.

Arthur is somewhat surprised that he has been chosen to fulfil such an important task as he is a junior solicitor and unfamiliar with the details of Mrs Drablow’s legal situation. However, when he questions his suitability his superior becomes defensive and antagonistic. He is told that the successful completion of this undertaking will reflect on how he rises within the firm.

Arthur reluctantly bids farewell to his beloved young wife and small children and sets out on his journey, reconciled to the fact that he may need to spend time away from them to fulfil his responsibility, secure a promotion in the law firm and perhaps give them a better life.

Upon the long train journey to Crythin Gifford, Arthur befriends Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton), a wealthy local landowner who is shocked to hear that the young solicitor has been charged with settling the Drablow estate. 

Two men attending a funeral with a scary looking woman in the background

Arthur attends Alice Drablow’s bleak funeral with local solicitor Arnold Pepperell (John Cater), where amid the gravestones at a distance he notices a woman (Pauline Moran). He assumes she is the single mourner as she is dressed all in black, but when he mentions her to Pepperell the man is visibly distressed. Soon afterwards Arthur rescues a Romany child from certain death when a log-truck gets sheds its load causing heavy lumber to fall on the child’s legs.

In his lodgings at the local inn Kidd finds the townspeople shaken and reluctant to talk when he remarks that he must go across the tidal causeway to the Drablow residence called Eel Marsh House, to sort through papers and prepare the house for sale.

He is fortunate to find Keckwick (William Simons) who knows the timing of the tides and who is the only driver willing to cross the causeway. Keckwick was previously employed by Mrs Drablow to bring her weekly provisions.

Eel Marsh House is vast, remote and gloomy, and while sorting through old photographs and papers, and hearing disturbing recordings made by Mrs. Drablow on wax cylinders, Arthur begins to discover the secrets of the Drablow family.

While staying at the mansion, the normally down-to-earth Arthur begins to suffer inexplicable supernatural events and feel the madness and increasing malevolence of the spectral ‘Woman in Black’.

To those who were of too nervous a disposition to watch the 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe as Kidd and CiarĂ¡n Hinds as the concerned Toovey, they need have no such worries about this 1989 TV version. It generally has very little in the way of scares, (apart from one noisy close up) concentrating instead on atmosphere, creepy locations and an effective central performance by Adrian Rawlings.

Rawlings acquits himself well as Kidd, going through a range of emotions and responses to a situation that poor Arthur’s humane and practical nature is not equipped to deal with. Rawlings was perhaps a more experienced and versatile actor than Radcliffe (even though after the green-screen extravaganza that was the Harry Potter franchise, Radcliffe probably has more experience reacting to invisible opponents than anyone else in the profession!)

This TV version of The Woman in Black was produced by Central Independent Television for the ITV Network, and premiered on Christmas Eve 1989. As the traditional Christmas ghost story, it was considered a success (though apparently author Susan Hill disagreed with some of the changes made by screenwriter Kneale).

Hill’s grim tale remains reliably creepy, even in this 1980’s TV version, which by today’s standards is mild enough to watch with a frail grandma, a nervous niece or a skittish pet.

Review Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2020 All rights reserved.

Follow Ren on Twitter @RenZelen

The worldwide Blu-ray debut of The Woman in Black is available exclusively from the Network website on 10th August