Friday, 29 November 2019

Beasts '76: During Barty's Party (aka Woodwork Squeaks and Out Come The Freaks)

There's something about the motif of a rat in the walls that lends itself compellingly to horror. Even as a rat fancier, I suppose I can comprehend it - the house stands for domesticity, cleanliness and safety, while the rat indicates wildness, contamination and volatility. Ostensibly, there's nothing out of the ordinary about a non-human visitor worming its way, uninvited, into your domain - it happens every day - and yet it suggests an unraveling of our control, both personally and as a species, a breakdown of the imagined barrier between civilisation and chaos. When I covered the "Night of The Rat" segment of the 1983 anthology film Nightmares earlier this year, I noted that the purest example I had seen of this motif occurs, strangely enough, in a Disney film, Lady and The Tramp (1955) - there, the rat is a foreign interloper, a frightening disturbance in Lady's pristine bourgeoisie paradise, one that intuitively understands that the Achilles heel of this clean-cut, perfectly ordered world is to be located within the baby's crib. Other examples from more conventional horror, such as the aforementioned Nightmares and Of Unknown Origin (1983), are more ambiguous in their treatment of the murine encroachers, using them as a foil or reflection for highlighting what's already squalid or debased about the lives of their human protagonists. Willard (1971), meanwhile, aligns its images of rat invasion with the uprising of the social misfit lashing back at a system that has rejected and subjugated him. In all cases, the rat might bring out the worst in the human (or vice versa, in the case of Willard), but the real hazard was lurking right there within the walls of the human psyche all along.

One of the most creative depictions of the ongoing battle between man and rodent for domestic dominance is the fifty-minute nail-biter "During Barty's Party", an installment of the British horror anthology series Beasts, which was first broadcast on ITV throughout the autumn of 1976. Written by Nigel Kneale of The Quatermass Experiment fame, Beasts consisted of six self-contained tales linked only by the common theme that they all involved animals - or, more accurately, the part of Man that's still very much in touch with his animalistic ancestry. "During Barty's Party" follows a terminally anxious housewife, Angie Truscott (Elizabeth Sellars), who every day is left to fend for herself in her remote Hampshire home while her hard-headed husband Roger (Anthony Bate) heads out to the office. So overwhelming is Angie's solitude that she routinely tunes into the titular "Barty's Party", a local radio show hosted by Barty Wills (voice of Colin Bell), a smarmy disc jockey of the Smashie and Nicey ilk, just to hear the sound of another human voice. On this particular day, Angie is having an especially stressful time of it, leaving her so distraught that she's committed the ultimate transgression and attempted to contact Roger at work. When Roger gets home, he's not amazingly sympathetic toward Angie, angered at the impression she may have given of their home life to his colleagues at his office, which gives us a neat little snapshot into their relationship dynamic. At first, Angie has trouble articulating quite what's gotten her so on edge, but gradually reveals that there are two key disturbances that have been gnawing away at her in Roger's absence. The first is the swanky sports car that's been stood vacant in the local vicinity for much of the day, its door hanging wide open; Angie suspects that it's been abandoned, but finds something inexplicably unsettling about the scenario. The second is the rat that's gotten into the house and is still periodically scratching away beneath the floorboards. Roger is quick to dismiss Angie's concerns as hysteria and produces a perfectly rational response for her every perturbation, a battle of sensibilities that only intensifies as the evening goes on and Angie discovers, with a little assistance from Barty, that there may be a horrifying connection between the two occurrences, one that potentially spells curtains for herself and Roger.

Being a rat fancier does put me in rather a paradoxical position when it comes to rat-related horror; as sub-genre it fascinates me but my sentiments for the animal in question obviously do impede my ability to feel afraid of them. Whenever a rat scarpers into view, it's inevitable that I'm going to see my own pets in them, not enmity. To that end, "During Barty's Party" achieved the impossible, in that it did leave me feeling somewhat alarmed at the Truscotts' mounting rat infestation. But then, "During Barty's Party" takes a unique approach, in that we never see a single rat throughout the full fifty minutes of running time. We hear the occasional scratching beneath the floorboards, which snowballs as it becomes apparent that the Truscotts' four-legged nemesis isn't working alone, ultimately swelling into a cacophony of shrieks as the rats really get down to business. But they manage to stay out of view for the entire duration. "During Barty's Party" is a minimalist horror that works by making clever use of what we don't see, and by keeping the rats entirely off-screen, the threat they pose becomes more abstract in nature, to be the point that, let's face it, this isn't really a story about rats, is it? Oh, they're out there alright, and they present a very real, immediate problem for the Truscotts, but Kneale's script appears to be tapping into a much deeper existential threat than simply the nightmarish prospect of a rodent infestation getting wildly out of hand. This is more about what becomes of you when the rest of the world turns its back on you and refuses to validate your existence, so that, for all intents and purposes, you cease to be. "During Barty's Party" is a study in isolation and its erosive effects upon the human psyche, with the rats becoming a manifestation of that void beyond the Truscotts' property - they are nothingness, abandonment, oblivion, the dead, nihilistic space that is persistently taunting Angie with its vacuity, and threatens to claim Roger and herself for its own. The deserted sports car parked outside has a more direct connection to the rodent rampage, which ultimately dawns on Angie, but for much of the piece it too is a symbol of that desolation - an empty, inert object where some form of life should be, perhaps even a terrifying preview of a world in which humans no longer exist.

For the bulk of "During Barty's Party" we never leave Angie and Roger's living room; the outside world remains almost entirely unseen, so that it too becomes part of the unknown. Among the scant exceptions are the opening shots of the episode, which show us the inside of the abandoned car, complete with close-up shots of the novelty items adorning the interior - a keychain shaped like a human skull and a gear stick cover shaped like a cat's head. Both are clues as the calamity that has already occurred, even before the sound of disembodied screaming kicks in - the skull is an obvious signifier of death and decay, while the cat, mortal enemy of the rat, becomes a totem for the absent occupants, a subtle hint that the food chain has been subverted and that the predator has become the prey. The Truscotts themselves own a dog, Buster, but by the time the story begins he has become yet another absent component, having absconded from the property the instant he caught wind of what trouble was headed their way. Roger does admit to feeling some concern about the dog, dismissing him as "stupid", although even this early on in the narrative it's hard to dispel the inkling that Buster may be the most sensible character in this entire equation. Roger's contempt for his dog's faculties, for the rats' status as scavengers and for his wife's anxieties establishes him as a man with an assured sense of dominion over his perceived underlings, both animal and human, an assumption that will inevitably shatter as the rats persist in throwing their combined weight around.

The subversion of predator-prey relations is a recurrent theme in eco-horror, for it plays on the fear that our position as dominant species may not be as carved in stone as we'd like to think, and that a simple change in environmental factors could tip the balance drastically in another creature's favour. There's a lot of talk throughout about about regular rats and how they are not to be underestimated (true, although the story Angie shares about their supposed co-operative egg-stealing techniques is one that I've heard many times before and do find rather suspect), so what would happen if the rats were to use that ingenuity in a highly organised way against us? In that regard, "During Barty's Party" plays like a darker take on Robert C. O'Brien's 1971 novel Mrs Frisby and The Rats of NIMH (adapted, albeit loosely, into the animated feature The Secret of NIMH in 1982), in that the rats are implied to be a strain of "super rats" who, as a knock-on effect of Man's relentless efforts to assert control over the animal kingdom, have developed not only an immunity to poison but an awareness of their immunity. Unlike the rats of NIMH, who only wanted to escape the shadow of Man, these sophisticated murines are highly vindictive and quite ready to declare war on the bipedal giants who trapped and poisoned them for eons. Roger persists in asserting the rational - that the rats' behaviour is instinct-driven and they do not possess the reasoning capacities for the ideating of something as complicated as war - for most of the narrative, as Angie's own gut instinct paints an increasingly persuasive picture of the possibility that the rats may be actively conspiring against them. But "During Barty's Party" is less about the formidableness of nature than it is the fragility of human wisdom and composure when faced with looming destruction. We know that Roger is setting himself up for a fall from the start, when he boasts about "throwing all of [his] professional expertise into gauging, assessing, evaluating the problem with that car." As it turns out, his cerebral outlook is his sole defence in the face of disaster, and an entirely flimsy one at that - all he can do is deny over and over that the apocalypse is happening, until the barriers have completely come down, at which point, he reverts to instinct and becomes almost animalistic in his response to the crisis, shrieking and staggering across the hallway on all fours. By contrast, the ostensibly irrational Angie proves more level-headed and resourceful, even if her powers too are ultimately futile.

In his review of the episode on The Spooky Isles, Chris Newton proposes that the rodent infestation is entirely imaginary, it being "a metaphor for the cracks in a loveless marriage where the lonely housewife drinks too much and the husband is more concerned with his career than his relationship." I would not disagree that Roger and Angie's unequal marriage is a key facet in this overall landscape of nihilism, or that the absent car owners, insinuated to be a pair of youthful lovers, offer an ominous echo to the barren state of our protagonists' interactions. In fact, they might even be Roger and Angie at a much earlier stage in their relationship, before things turned sour (the fate of the motorists is never made clear, but it's heavily inferred that they parked their car and slipped into the bushes to copulate, only to be viciously mauled by the legions of rats they unwittingly laid down among). From that perspective, the rats could represent the stagnation of a marriage that has lost momentum ever since the offspring fled the nest (the Truscotts have a daughter, Kate, who left them to get married), the poisoning and contamination of marital idealism. But I personally believe that Kneale is using the rats to convey a much broader indifference than that concerning the tepid relations between Roger and Angie, the implication being that humankind will ultimately doom itself against the rodent uprising through a fundamental lack of co-operation and communication - in that regard, the rats clearly have them beat.

This is where the titular Barty comes in, for he provides Angie of the illusion of an intimacy with an outside world that, in reality, would never notice if she lived or died. Angie clearly gets little alleviation from the overbearing void whether her husband is there with her or not, and it seems that there are a few other candidates willing to afford her the acknowledgement she requires - in addition to the absent Kate and Buster, Angie's mother would sooner talk about her own troubles than listen to her daughter's, and their neighbours the Gibsons are away. On a regular day, the voice of Barty becomes a substitute for human connection, a means of staving off despair by filling in the empty space, but at the climax of the story Angie uses him as a more literal lifeline, when she becomes desperate enough to call into Barty's show, after police have already dismissed the Truscotts' problem as one for the exterminators to handle in the morning. Barty assumes the role of spokesperson for the external world to whom Angie reaches out for help and validation in the midst of catastrophe. We sense straight off the bat that Barty is unlikely to provide such refuge (keep in mind that "art", which features twice in "Barty's Party", is an anagram of "rat"), and it is indeed Barty who finally damns Angie to oblivion. Although Barty initially treats the story as a joke, he does appear to grow genuinely concerned as Angie's situation grows more and more dire and her distress magnifies, and promises that he will send help - unfortunately, the rats bite through the telephone wires, severing the Truscotts' sole means of communication with the world beyond, just before Angie is able to give Barty her address. The radio remains intact, however, so the Truscotts can still hear Barty as he assures them that he did at least garner Angie's full name and that his production team will spearhead a search for anyone living in the Hampshire area with the name Angela Prescott. All the Truscotts can do is scream in vain at the blathering Barty as it becomes evident that the outside world will never find a trace of them. Crucially, Barty has doomed Angie in his failure to validate her existence - by failing to accurately memorise her name, he denies her the affirmation she seeks, the authentication of herself and her predicament, and her assimilation into a broader body of connected people. As far as the wider world is concerned, she does not exist, and her cries for acknowledgement have fallen on deaf ears.

The end of the story offers an unexpected development - the Truscotts are cornered in their bedroom, with seemingly no prospect of escape, when the rats fall abruptly silent. Angie and Roger hear the sounds of human voices outside and realise, to their relief, that their neighbours the Gibsons have returned. Confirmation, then, that the rats were nothing more than the products of a particularly oppressive bout of isolation, an illusion easily shattered by the emergence of other human figures from the void? That's what Kneale undoubtedly wants us to think, but unfortunately, the Gibsons' last-minute appearance amounts to nothing more than a passing flicker of false hope. As we soon discover, the rats have halted their attack on the Truscotts simply to go outside take out the Gibsons, after which their rampage on the Truscotts' property immediately resumes. That the rats make a point of destroying the Gibsons first may be their most sinister course of action throughout the entire story, since it implies that they want the Truscotts to feel completely cut off and alone in their final moments. The helplessness of both parties against this oblivion is a chilling reminder of just how flimsy are the ties that bind, even among those living in a close proximity. Fact is, they could not depend on their own neighbours to save them in a time of crisis.

As the story closes, it is Barty who gets the last word, for the sounds of the radio can just about be discerned above the onslaught of shrieking rats, and he has one final comment for Angie in an effort to prop up his own ego: "Now we're doing all we can, but still no positive results. One or two cynics here are even using the word "hoax". Well, that's happened before. Poor old Barty being conned and being set up ridiculous. But I don't want to believe it. I've got faith in human nature. So before our handover, I'll just say this: Angela, sweetie, I hope you really do exist." Not any more, she doesn't.

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