Gallowglass Revisited

I watched the Netflix serial Behind Her Eyes (2021). Although it has no reference to the pandemic, it’s as up to date as possible, set in the world of modern offices, short term contracts, smartphone conversations. But what struck me is what it still had in common with the old psychological thrillers from 30 years earlier, in particular the stories that Ruth Rendell published under the name Barbara Vine.

In this Note I am going to reveal quite a bit of the plot and some twists. However I won’t explain everything, so you can still watch to find out how it’s all done. This is perfectly in the spirit of Ruth – the only one of her books I read was A Judgement In Stone (1977), which works the trick of telling you the baddie right from the outset, and even the cause of her downfall (illiteracy), but then leaves the rest of the 250 or so pages to fill in the specifics of how it works out (because she couldn’t read, she didn’t realise the notes jotted down in the Radio Times by a victim watching TV proved when they were alive, contrary to her alibi).

The Barbara Vine novels were published in the late 80s. It was always acknowledged that Rendell was the author, and that she wanted to put a different kinds of story under a different identity. They were quickly adapted by the BBC.

A Fatal Inversion screened in 1992. The story mixes parallel stories in 1979 and 1991. The remains of a woman and a baby have been found in the grounds of Wyvis Hall in Suffolk, so an investigation is underway. 12 years earlier, the golden youths Adam and Rufus were enjoying a summer vacation staying at the Hall as Adam had just inherited it, and fancies just hanging out there before maybe heading off to Greece. Rufus is grooving to the exciting new sound of “Babylon’s Burning” by The Ruts. Soon they’ve got a lot of vague friends-of-friends and a random stranger staying with them as well, it’s all a jolly old lark of casual sex, drugs and booze. Perhaps Ruth Rendell’s drawing of the relationship between the 2 central males was alluding to the wasted toffs who also appeared in 1981’s Brideshead Revisited adaptation, which was that generation’s preferred dose of nostalgia, but the novel was set in 1976 and the chronology shifted forward for the TV version.

But 12 years later Rufus is a very important medical consultant whose career can’t possibly be upset by any revelations of bad things he may have been involved in, whilst Adam is a dad and seems to be running a design business. The cast are just within the bounds of credibility in playing themselves at the ages of both 19 and 31. It all twists around to a big reveal that isn’t the one we’ve been misdirected to expect, but unfortunately we might well expect it now, watching in the 21st century, when this sort of thing has become the norm for TV thrillers and is pretty much the template for endless Morse and Midsomer episodes.

Gallowglass was shown in 1993, the title coming from an Irish term for a mercenary or hired soldier. That is the role assigned explicitly by the dominating character in this story – although he tells his lackey that the word means “servant, or one indebted to another”, a blander interpretation.

But we begin with a miasma of stone work in which faces are mingled. We later realise this sequence takes in the statues on the posts at the main entrance of Jareds, the country house featuring a lot in this story.

We start with young Michael Sheen alone in a room, troubled Joe.

He’s been in care for his mental health problems, but it turns out his foster parents don’t want him back again. Here and at other points in the narrative we cut away to Joe speaking to an unseen interviewer at some later date, looking back on events.

Being rejected by the only family he ever had (we never learn much about his deeper background) causes him to go to London and quickly get out of his depth. He is robbed by some generic teenage thugs and ends up lost inside Embankment station.

On the brink of throwing himself in front of a train, he’s rescued by the denim-jacketed bystander who introduces himself as Sandor (pronounced “Shandor”). He takes him back to his bedsit, where he tells him to stop taking those stupid pills the mental health clinic gave him (which appear to be Amitriptyline). Their relationship is not sexual even though they share a double bed at first, and we later hear that Sandor has had at least one gay relationship.

Interleaved with this story so far we have seen parts of the life of Paul Garnet, a single dad struggling with paperwork and a young daughter.

That scene would be occurring at the same time as Joe is leaving the clinic, since Garnet seems to be struggling to the end of his unhappy career as a teacher. However we also regularly see moments of him undergoing a police interrogation, which is the advance warning that he will end up at least a suspect in some major crisis at the end of this flashback narrative.

No exact dates are given in this story, although we can’t be later than the early 90s since audio cassette tapes are in use and no one, not even the richest characters, appear to have any mobile or car phones, which would certainly alter crucial moments in the plot.

Both Joe/Sandor and Paul move in separate paths towards the same goal: the country estate now called Jareds, in Suffolk. Currently owned by the very rich Ralph Apsoland and his equally rich wife Nina, a former model who has been married to other rich men previously and acquired their fortunes.

Sandor knows quite a lot about Nina. He knows the story of how she was kidnapped from her previous husband back in Italy a few years ago, and that the kidnappers were simply paid off discreetly. We see the sordid events in flashbacks-within-the-flashback.

After stopping off to see his mum, played by Nerys Hughes, who is the source of funds for his moody gallivanting, Sandor sets his trusty servant to work monitoring Jareds, and following the new chauffeur Paul Garnet. Garnet is amazingly lucky to land this job just after quitting teaching (he couldn’t cope with kids who were violently disrespectful, though he doesn’t want his new employer to know). He’s not completely lost in the country as he grew up here, and knows how to handle a gun or spot a poacher’s trap. He’s sharp enough to spot Joe tailing him right away and warn him off, but it seems Nina herself expects to the target of a new conspiracy. Oh, of course, it turns out Sandor was one of her previous kidnappers – he can’t resist revealing that detail to his awestruck audience of one.

He needs a plan to move against Garnet, although nothing seems to have come together beyond vague threats which the chauffeur has decided not to tell the police about – as he later regrets.

Of course, he’s been falling in love with his work.

Meanwhile Tilly, Joe’s foster-sister who saw him briefly in London, has caught up with him again. She supplies an actual plan to make a move on Garnet and Nina, and Sandor falls in with it, whilst still maintaining his position as the icily brilliant genius-commander.

Of course everything goes wrong, and it turns out Sandor isn’t the man he wanted his adoring followers to think he was, but then Nina isn’t who she presented as being either. Garnet ends up in that police interrogation he’s been stuck in all this time, though it’s hard to see what they could pin on him. Everyone else is oblivious to the fact that a peripheral character turned out to be right near to the centre all along, there is an unexpected flip of identity. As with Fatal Inversion, if only two main characters had ever been together at a crucial time and place then the outer ring of the narrative would have been broken.

At the end, Joe is telling his interlocutor about his life and how he now has a relationship with Tilly – it’s ok, she was never a blood relation anyway. He wasn’t being interrogated either, as unlike Garnet they were beneath suspicion, being mere foot soldiers. He’s inherited Sandor’s old shaving kit now, and reflects on his legacy.

JOE: I wonder if he’s with the princess, now that they’re both ghosts, if he’s forgiven her for stealing his heart on St. Gallowglass’s Eve. Sometimes I think about him so hard that I can conjure him up, see him sitting in the shadows as though he’s really there. He’s not, of course, I know that. But it’s a way of being close to him for the rest of my life. I suppose it’s a way of being him.

Those final words could as well bean opening quotation for Behind Her Eyes, once you know the full story.

We do no go straight in to an opening credits sequence, but after a few minutes each episode does show the titles against the backdrop of the woods, painted by Adele on the walls of her very nice house in central London.

We start with an evening out for single mum Louise, who goes to a fancy bar in what looks like somewhere near Aldgate. Her date stands her up but she ends up chatting to suave Scottish guy David, who gets panicky and quits at the end of the happy time together.

Next day at her work (office admin at a large GP practice in a nice bit of London) she notices a new person has joined: a psychiatrist who wants to get involved in outreach work with drug addicts in the estates not so far away. She can see it’s Tom, here with his wife Adele.

They can’t avoid meeting, of course.

Adele stays at home and Tom makes sure she keeps up with medication for her mental health issues.

But Adele does meet the house and get about enough to meet Louise, seemingly by accident.

Various things lead to various others and soon Louise is friends with Adele whilst having an affair with Tom, whilst also trying to keep up with her own ex who has designs to take her son away to be with his new relationship as well. All this in addition to the bad dreams she’s been having. Adele also has obsessions about a wooded place and a mysterious well, which we can easily imagine has a body at the bottom of it.

Adele lets her know about methods of lucid dreaming she learned from when she was in a mental health clinic along with a boy called Rob.

Adele and Rob were together around 2009. She was recovering from the shock of her parents getting killed in a house fire. She was rescued by her dashing young student boyfriend Tom, who turns up to visit them all. Tom is rural working class made good academically and off to university, just like Paul Garnet. Once again there’s a posh house in the country that’s the centre of the psychic trauma, no matter how far we go from it into the dingiest parts of the big cities, or the nicest and most modern fitted kitchens.

Which one of Adele and Rob will turn out to be the wrong’un who was wearing a mask all along, and when will (or rather, did) they do the dirty on poor old Rob – a drug addict from a Glasgow housing estate with an uncaring single mum, so he was obviously going to be the disposable body no one wanted to fish out of the well… wasn’t he? Sort of.

The theme of bad dreams and lucid dreams is not incidental or just Hitchcock-homage decoration. The plot curves off into literal supernaturalism (there is no room for it all being a dream or fugue state), which we had no real warning of. That makes for a surprise, but then it’s hard to care too much at the end. A similar twist occurred in the 2005 chiller The Skeleton Key, but there we get the theme of demonic possessions and transference set up at the outset, with Kate Hudson as the glib college graduate very eager to interpret it all non-literally as ethnic lore that can be condescended to and quietly bracketed away, until it’s too late to realise she has come to believe in it.

The concept of physical possession also has a quirky intrepretation in Behind Her Eyes. A soul that was fond of taking heroin in its old body brings the addiction along with it to a new one. There is also a scene which seems to imply that transmigrated souls take their sexual preferences with them, even into an anatomically different body. That is a radically detached soul, that owes nothing to the world but can still claim and possess a particular part of it.

When Sandor and Joe stalked the land, the Behind Her Eyes characters were just babes and infants or not yet born. How much has changed and how little. One of the wasted opportunities of the New Labour years was to nationalise all these big country houses so we can’t have any more poisonous psychic legacies spilling down the generations yet again. Sort it out, Starmer.

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