Why do people change a Good Thing?
It’s a good question.
Clockwork mechanisms have been around for a very long time indeed. The principle is devastatingly simple: you wind energy up into a mainspring, and a ratchet rations it to run a series of cogs or gears to achieve an end.
Yet the artisans who created the pocket watch brought untold creativity and artistry to their craft. The first pocket watches appeared during the 15th century: stunning pieces whose power stems from a very small wellspring indeed. Many of the early ones hailed from Nuremberg under the direction of Peter Henlein, a locksmith and watchmaker.
To see a Nuremberg Egg, as they were known, is to be seduced. Like pill boxes, they nestle in the hand, and it is said that once wound, some would keep time for 40 hours.
Beginning by marking just the hours and quarter-hours with one hand, watchmakers refined the design to include a range of escapements, minutes and seconds hands, phases of the moon and alarm bells.
They found their way to our wrists eventually. This fascinating retrospective from Michael Friedberg tells how the German Imperial Navy made them standard issue in the 1880s. In the early 1900s ladies wore ‘wristlets’ – an early term for a wristwatch but gentlemen preferred pocket watches.
But in the First World War the soldiers needed the time there on their wrists, tiny clockwork reminders of the passing of the hours, the deadlines for attack.
And then: All Change. some bright spark envisaged a clock without the hands. The mainspring was replaced by electrical current, the pulse also provided by electricity, and the face a set of numbers controlled by a clever little piece of circuitry.
It was ingenuity for a mass market. Its sophistication was invisible to the majority of people: it presented the time simply, cheaply and to the widest possible audience.
But privately I mourn its introduction. I hate change in which something beautiful loses its ability to take one’s breath away.
I have been rumbling on in a curmudgeonly fashion about a change I find most unpalatable.
The posters are up all round our area: Susan Hill’s Woman In Black is coming to the big screen in the UK.. It opens on February 10.
For as long as I can remember, this novel has been central to my adult life. It was published in 1983: 23 years ago, it began its life as a stage play adapted by Stephen Malatratt, opening in Scarborough before moving to the Fortune Theatre in Covent Garden. It has been there ever since.
The novel and the play are the swiss watch of the world of ghost stories. Hill’s timing is impeccable: she knows when to lull her reader and when to pull their heartstrings so tight they simply cannot breathe. Her novel is a business of smoke and mirrors, her spectre a real ghost which astounds us by choosing just the right moment to sweep past in a light-starved corridor, or stand stark at a graveside.
She exploits all those questions we ask ourselves when we see something we cannot explain: what if we were seeing something no-one else could? How terrified does one have to be before one surrenders one’s sanity? Are these unexplained creatures just a nasty shadow or could they do something irrevocable out of pure, spiteful revenge?
And she does all this through the eyes of an idealistic Victorian lawyer who has arrived on a steam train from London: she uses a beautiful old house on an island accessible only by a causeway at low tide, haunted by sea frets.
I have seen the stage production three times: and each time its sparse mastery of the stage, its solitary teller of the tale, its three actors, one of whom is not even mentioned in the programme; they conspire to terrify using understatement, in the tradition of the ancient storytellers.
Alas, because the film makers can, I fear they may have done so.
You can view the trailer here. The people who made it are Hammer Film Productions, they of the old Hammer House of Horror programmes. And lo: the trailer would seem to indicate that this, too, has been produced as a horror film.
Where there was spectral suggestion, now plot devices seem clumsy for the mass market: unspoken whispers become daubings on walls, one little boy becomes three little girls, ghostly shadows of children become nasty horror inventions roaming the marsh outside the house.
Hammer has changed the story in the same way digital watches improved upon clockwork: cheaply, and to appeal to the widest possible audience.
They seem – on the evidence of the trailer – to have changed one of the best moments in spectral literature: the play which has run for 23 years, and a book which has sold more than one million copies nationwide.
Picture source here