I watched the new release of The Intruder, first shown in 1972.
The title sequence starts with the tranquil evening shore.
But then the darkened face of the titular intruder rises up to obscure the view.
As the intruder’s face pulls away it flickers and overlays the face of our putative hero, young Arnold Haithwaite.
There are 8 episodes of 25 minutes, each divided into 2 parts. Since there is no swearing (apart from I think 1 stray use of “bloody”) and no overt sexual references, this fits the conditions for a children’s drama… but it’s a very strange one, in some ways a younger cousin of contemporary films like Fragment Of Fear.
The location is the northern riverside town of Skirlston, in the Duchy of Furness. The local railway station has regular services to Barrow and Manchester. Our hero Arnold Haithwaite lives and works at the shop owned by the old man he knows as his dad, and also works part-time as the sand pilot. The time is 1972 because “new pence” are a thing that not everyone has got used to, but there are no other explicit topical references. The magazine that Jane is reading when we first encounter her seems to be a feminist publication but she never talks about it. Having a telephone in your home (rather than going to a callbox) is a marker of middle class membership.
As sand pilot Arnold has to assist travellers up and down the beach and warn them to get away from the sea church when tide is coming in.
Everything is filmed on location, apart from model shots used for the sea church getting overwhelmed with floodwater in the final episode.
Arnold is minding his business when the mysterious stranger with the eyepatch (he never explains how that happened) turns up.
The stranger, who is usually called Sonny, says he is also be called Arnold Haithwaite, but then dismisses it as a joke. He seems to drag young Arnold underwater, but then dismisses the incident as an accident. When they reach home it seems Sonny has already parked his decrepit old car nearby. He quickly ingratiates himself with old Earnest, in a conversation in which he claims to be a distant relative and reasserts that he is Arnold Haithwaite. The conversation is ambiguous: it could be that Sonny is using crude cold-reading methods to get details out of Earnest which he then pretends to corroborate. But he sticks to his new story and signs the visitors book under this name, as he is now going to be staying a few days.
The visitation sets off a strange Hitchcockian dream sequence in which young Arnold imagines the old grandfather clock without hands, and the living room out at sea, whilst the stranger hides inside its body.
Meanwhile young Arnold gets to know the young posh kids Jane and Peter from the big house where the old rich family who own the town live.
Peter is a pretty decent sort but Jane seems to pick up and drop new distractions, and the young sand pilot might be just another phase she’s going through. Meeting her relatives he gets clues that his own background isn’t quite what he believes, which is hardly surprising since it’s not really credible that old Earnest had a son at the age of around 60.
So the story progresses on 2 tracks: attempting to find out what Sonny is up to (he talks about some crackpot schemes to setup a marina complex), and who he is, whilst also trying to find out who young Arnold himself is. His relationships with the other young people nearby fluctuate: Jane and Peter and their world, and young Norma who fancies him but he’s not so keen. Sonny introduces a woman whom he describes as his fiancee, but she isn’t so interested in staying for long, and insinuates she’s only playing the role as a favour.
In a rather comic sequence, Peter disguises himself to follow Sonny back to his base in Manchester. It turns out the sad old git is squatting in a derelict warehouse next to a scrap car yard.
But Sonny isn’t so stupid as to not realise he’s been followed, and he can turn nasty, before floundering and becoming rather pitiful and distressed.
There are no supernatural or conventional “horror” elements to this story, “mystery” is the correct term for this utterly unresolved and ambiguous tale. Was Sonny a crook trying to steal Arnold’s place and inherit the shop… but why, when the lawyer for the rich family explains he has no right to carry out his schemes under the lease, and they wouldn’t succeed anyway? He seems to be damaged and confused at times, perhaps he has to return to Skirlston to come to terms with some trauma there earlier. Is there any significance that the unseen father of Jane and Peter is in charge of an MoD firing range nearby – perhaps Sonny was some kind of agent (which is how he was reasonably competent at spotting a tail, and responding to Earnest) but had a terrible downfall and now lives in poverty. We learn that young Arnold was an unwanted unexpected pregnancy placed in safe keeping with the old man, but there seems to be more that is left unexplored. Is there a Cyclopean mythological significance about the stranger’s physical handicap (is it genuine at all?)
The episode titles all relate to character names, starting with “The Stranger” and ending with “Me”, implying this is narrated by young Arnold, but at the end he is not sure who he is. It can’t all be occurring in his consciousness as we have several scenes where he is not present.
The series is based on a book by John Rowe Townsend, who also supplied the source text for the wonderful late 70s catastrophe fiction Noah’s Castle. That also featured a creepy old man trying to get inside a family living in an unstable world. There are interviews and more details about the production in the extra features on the new disc but I haven’t gone through them all.
Perhaps this is a veiled story about a young man trying to deal with his lack of interest in young women, even though he gets to see them in bikinis and swimwear quite often and has a handy shelter available to spend some time together in. Teenage boys watching this show in 1972 would be delighted by the 1 second glimpse of naked breasts in the final episode, what a pity none of them would be able to record it on VHS even if they knew in advance. The luckiest boy in this show was young Simon Fisher-Turner, who also got a chance at being a teen pop star managed by Jonathan King. It didn’t work out, and neither did his later career as an indie pop music maker under the name King Of Luxembourg. He did have some success doing soundtracks for Derek Jarman films however. The compilation album Sex Appeal has some great cover versions on it. In my opinion he did the best recordings of “Sit Down I Think I Love You”, “Straits Of Malacca”, “A Picture Of Dorian Gray”, and “Poptones”.