4: The Spider in the Web
The pace picks up again in the fourth episode, including a ream of exposition expertly delivered by Stephens. Before that, there’s the little matter of the treacherous weir to deal with. Woo-hoo! This is as typically Sunday Children’s Classic looking as the serial gets (well, that and some of the journey-through-time scenery in the following installment). What keeps it from becoming too twee is the presence of jovial antagonists (“Nothing like children for leading one a dance, what?”)
Returned to full size and back at the freshly burglarised Seekings. Kay launches into a remonstration of Ellen for deserting the house (bloody working class servant types, eh? They need thirteen year olds to keep them in line!). The poor woman is only recovering from the sick trick used to get her to leave (that her mother was terribly ill).
The return of Maria finds Dukes yet again commanding attention (“I… was scrobbled!”) Unlike her peers, she isn’t the type to get upset or frightened (“I knew I shouldn’t have gone without a pistol!”).
Sylvia: You know what a scrounger is, my dear? We put you in it, and it has a thing that goes round and round. That is the scrounger. And pretty soon you come out as dog biscuit!
The flashback to Maria’s imprisonment by Abner’s gang mostly revolves around an effective cell set, shot at high angles. Abner and Sylvia introduce themselves from hatches at the sides. Maria’s refusal to join forces with this “pretty shady lot” is marked out by the unswerving insults she piles at Sylvia (“It can’t be too nice, or it wouldn’t have you in it”, says Maria of the gang). The scene is also noteworthy for Sylvia’s “Put her in the scrounger!” moment, as she explains how Maria may soon end up as dog food (those dreadful adults!)
Rye knows just how conjure up menace; the cell goes dark, then the door opens and (Charles) enters putting a sack over Maria’s head. To underline that none of this has fazed Maria in the slightest, she summarises her adventure with “Well I’m here now, and I didn’t join their gang. What’s for dessert?”
For some reason, Kay chooses to bring Peter along with him to investigate Abner’s masquerade as the head of Chesters Theological College (over at Chester Hills; actually Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire). Aside from his colourful vernacular (more “Purple pims” and now a “Gives me the fantods!”) Peter proves a resolutely unresourceful companion, and promptly gets himself captured when they split up (for which another sack is employed).
There’s further indication that Kay knows the ways of the natural world, although this time in a less “nature spirit” manner. He makes light of Peter’s concern over discovery; there are clearly no gamekeepers about as, if there were, they would see signs of pheasants, and dead stoats and weasels.
Charles: I can feel the corpuscles coursing through my veins.
Abner: I wouldn’t have thought so.
Abner’s failure to hold his roguish crew in check may be his greatest failing; if not for his displays of the dark arts in the final episode, we might suspect his abilities at all. Instead of acting decisively or appointing reliable henchman, he persists with Charles and Joe and, most damagingly, continues to be advised by Sylvia. So he reluctantly takes a swim with Charles, who is none to good at disguising his canoodling behaviour (“Oh, jolly good sort old Sylvia… er Mrs Brown”).
Perhaps Abner believes Charles’ fey, slightly campy manner signals him out as posing no real threat. Full respect to Stephens (and his beer jacket) for braving what looks like a very chilly lake. Poor old Chubby Joe; it appears that, when not scrobbling, he is ascribed menial tasks such as raking up leaves (clad in a monk’s habit).
Structurally, it is evident that what works on the page isn’t necessarily quite so effective on screen. Kay returns home to report Peter’s capture, makes yet another call on the police (this time with Maria), and then returns to Chesters. This serves to fill us in on some significant details (a newspaper bears the legend “Bishop of Tatchester kidnapped”) and confirms the abduction of Caroline Louisa (“She left two days ago to come home”) but it also diminishes the urgency of the situation. Still, Maria’s response to the Inspector’s blithe lack of concern is priceless; “Stupid man. Talking to Abner Brown himself”).
Fortunately, it's time for another of Kay’s hallucinogenic dreams; it appears that this time he needs no chemical inducement to trip-out. Yet again, he sees a vision of the Old Lady morphing into Caroline Louisa. We also see a watery vision of Rat, and his governess’ cry of “Kay!” before a wolf-headed figure pulls her away from her bedroom window (very suggestive, really). Regarding the Caroline Louisa/Old Lady connection, it occurs to me that they share scenes in the final episode thus making their link with each other even more oblique.
The final portion of the episode finds Kay, in miniature, back at the College and eavesdropping on Abner and Joe. Abner, using his globe/monitoring device, is listening to his chubby stooge complaining. Why do they need to get their hands on this perishing box; scrobbling clergy is “plain foolishness”. Abner would have maximum respect if he singularly did for Joe at this point, but he unwisely displays his own brand of foolishness by (apparently) capitulating to Joe’s suggestion that “If I knew why” he might be on board with the scheme.
The conversation further highlights that Abner is surrounded by idiots, as the vacuous Joe suggests facile means of extracting the truth from Cole; “Just threaten him a bit or using itching powder to keep him awake”. But, to be fair to Joe, at the start of the next episode his straightforward mind will hit on the truth of matters in a way Abner’s labyrinthine cerebrum cannot. Abner brings Joe, Kay, and the audience, up to speed on the relationship between Cole Hawlings and Arnold of Todi.
We learn that Arnold was a philosopher in the Middle Ages, back when a philosopher studied many things including magic. He encountered one Ramon Lully, who was also a philosopher in the Middle Ages and not “the chap who used to do the box trick down at Brixton Music Hall” at all. Lully travelled Spain, France and Italy on his quest, and offered his elixir of life to Todi in exchange for Arnold’s magic powers “which were contained in the box”. However, soon after that, Arnold of Todi disappeared. Abner informs Joe that, according to legend, Arnold went into the past by means of the box but could not get out again. Setting up Kay’s journey in the next episode, it appears that one cannot take the box on travels into the past; “you enter at own risk and must find your own way out”.
Abner is oblique concerning whether or not Lully thieved the box. As Abner puts it, “There are people who believe that Ramon Lully got the box after Arnold went into the past without it”. And, in episode five, Arnold expresses no ill will concerning Lully’s actions. But it does imply a different side to the Cole we see, one for whom opportunism and undirected knowledge rather than wisdom may have been the order of the day.
And so comes the dramatic pay off, and the best cliffhanger out of the five. This is one that advances the plot by way of revelation, rather than ending on an action beat. Abner draws Joe’s attention to the picture of Lully in a dusty old tome; “You see who it is, don’t you?” Lully gradually becomes wrinkled and whiskery before Joe’s eyes and realisation dawns (lest we had not already reached such a point ourselves);
Joe: It’s him! It’s the old Punch and Judy Man! But he must be five… 700 years old!