The Words of the Prophet are Written on the Subway Wall

Seance on a Wet Afternoon. Written for the screen and directed by Bryan Forbes. A Beaver Film.

Starring Kim Stanley and a false nose driven by Richard Attenborough.


“FORECAST 2/-” This is inscribed above each window of a derelect building where Sir Dickie Lord Attenborough stashes a Rolls Royce he’s stolen while abducting a rich little girl. I have no idea what this signage means, but perhaps everybody in 1964 would have understood it perfectly. It adds a weird little mystery for me though, and connects to the film’s psychic theme.

“BREAD”. This is written on a bread bin in Kim Stanley’s kitchen. Bread is what they feed the “borrowed child” and bread is what they demand from the girl’s parents.

“TY-PHOO”. This is written on the side of a bus. It’s a popular brand of tea — perhaps relating to tea-leaf reading?

“Get on the trail of the happiest ale. BEN TRUMAN.” Another bus. This is also a detective story, and the police will soon be on the trail of a less-than-happy Dickie.

“THE PUBLIC EYE”. Big ad for a play, seen behind a crowd scene as Dickie makes himself furtive in the foreground.

“MUST END.” To do with the play, but we see a Greater Significance, and this is the first of several signs tainted with ominous subtext.

“SEEDLESS”. Written on a box of grapes in a market stall. Possibly a comment on Dickie’s impotent character, seen loitering nearby.

Also around here is a Max Factor ad but I can’t quite read the product name. “Coiffure Italienne”? I am reminded of an anecdote of uncertain veracity told me by my late friend Lawrie Knight, and since Lawrie knew Bryan Forbes slightly, I’ll reproduce it here:

Lawrie was running an ad company in Soho and he was approached by someone from Max Factor and offered the lucrative Max F account. But there was one condition: to prove his abilities, Lawrie was instructed to make a copy of a mysterious film handed to him by the Factor factotum.

He runs the film in his screening room and it’s hardcore porn. He tells his projectionist to get it duped. The projectionist hurries off, but soon reports back that no lab will touch it — this is the sixties and such material is very illegal. Lawrie says he’s sorry but the man will have to get the film copied or he’s fired. (Lawrie wasn’t this harsh when I knew him, but it’s, like, necessary to the plot, so we’ll accept it).

Next day the projectionist proudly presents a copy of the film. They run it for Max Factor man and the first thing up is a title, “The BBC Proudly Presents,” or some such, followed by the standard erect cock. Which means that the film is a kinescope. Which means that it’s a recording of a TV broadcast. Which means that the projectionist had taken the film to BBC Television and bribed somebody to transmit this hardcore porn extravaganza to the entire nation in the middle of the night when there were no official broadcasts and nobody was watching… except maybe some drunk somewhere, nodded off in front of the telly, awakened by sudden grunting and unable to believe his bleary eyes.

End of digression.

“GENTLEMEN.” Sign on a public lav. Which is an odd thing for it to say, when “POO AND PEE” would give you a more accurate account of the likely contents of the establishment.

“WALPAMUR Petrifying Liquid”. This is printed on a canister in Dickie’s garage, which a policeman searches. Again, I don’t know what this one means but it’s bloody terrifying. I’m going to have Walpamur-based nightmares tonight, I can tell.

“CLOSING DOWN”. Another sign weighted with foreboding.

“LONGFELLOW. AM READY TO OBLIGE. CHARLES.” The cryptic personal ad by which the child’s father signals his willingness to cough up the swag.

Now Dickie descends into the Underground, and suddenly his whole world is a speeding mass of signage. Only a few can be by read in all the flurry of ransom-collecting:


“People With Interest In The Future”. An ad, and another reference to crystal-gazing etc.

“Leave Something Solid Behind You,” another ad, certainly full of possible significance for Dickie. Could also serve as a slogan for the “Gentlemen”.


A few years back Bryan Forbes, along with many other directors, picked his ten favourite films of all time. He was the only one to choose one of his own movies. He picked WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND with performing prodigy Hayley Mills, which is an outstanding film, but  he could have equally picked this one. (My late friend Lawrie did not find it at all surprising that BF would nominate himself. I think it’s a rather splendid thing to do, personally.)

We have a suburban Lady Macbeth with whispery voice, in supposed communication with her still-born son Arthur, pushing her sappy hubby into this crazy abduction venture in order to prove her psychic abilities to the world. The domestic conspiracy scenes are quietly skin-crawling — this is a matrimonial horror film. Kim Stanley’s softly domineering Myra has the absolute faith of the true believer, which tells her that whatever she feels like doing is RIGHT, while Dickie is the weak man with no particular beliefs except a vague sense of right and wrong, which really proves his salvation.

I’ve never been very taken with Attenborough’s films as director, but as a performer he’s often remarkable: a fidgety, actorly outside, fussing away at bits of business, while a fierce-burning core of intense emotion rages behind the eyes. Here it feels like his big bald forehead is going to burst like an egg from the incredible pressures building within.

Also appearing: Nanette Newman as the kidnapped child’s mother. Forbes’ wife and frequent star, NN is a sort of English Rose type only her face looks like an Identikit of Sophia Loren: all the features are slightly the wrong size, which is definitely a good thing in this case. Patrick Magee as the Third Act Detective Inspector. This is the most restrained I’ve ever seen Madman Magee. He doesn’t even look as if he WANTS to start drooling and gnawing the chair legs. And he’s mesmeric.

Attenborough’s partner in Beaver Films was Bryan Forbes, a good actor and an often marvellous director. Here he seems to have picked up some tricks from the nouvelle vague and maybe the British New Wave: raindrops spatter on the lens turning the scene into a funhouse mirror wibble-wobble; we direct-cut from scene to scene and dissolve DURING scenes; we wipe between scenes just once, almost randomly. And this is combined with a staunchly classical mise-en-scene, strong compositions and elegant camera moves, especially around the seance table, which we circle counter-clockwise opposite Kim Stanley as she prepares to Make Contact.

British films have often seemed conservative to the point of petrification, a touch too much Walpamur Liquid perhaps. It’s not surprising to me that we made a film celebrating Douglas Bader, a war hero with tin legs: he has the perfect gait for our pictures. But in between the crazy dreamers like Michael Powell, and the plodding craftsmen like, well, 90% of everybody else, there are a few clever, skilled storytellers like Forbes who sometimes make contact with the beyond.


A vision from KKurosawa's SEANCE.

Footnote: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s SEANCE is inspired by Forbes’ film. It shatters the neat structure, deploys an even more elliptical approach to narrative, and is a very interesting flick in it’s own right. The British film resists the supernatural without ever quite denying it altogether: offscreen spirits seem to breathe into its rooms. The Japanese quasi-remake teeters on the edge of total irrationality, and its protagonists plunge headlong into the terrible place that we sometimes see reflected in Attenborough’s glassy eyes.


5 Responses to “The Words of the Prophet are Written on the Subway Wall”

  1. >A few years back Bryan Forbes, along with many other directors, picked his ten favourite films of all time. He was the only one to choose one of his own movies.

    Similarly, Mr. Lindsay Anderson and Luis Bunuel couldn’t resist the temptation. It’s also good to see Samuel Fuller pick the Godard film to which he makes a cameo.

  2. I think a few of them on that site (a compendium of different lists from different occasions) pick films they are indirectly associated with. Billy Wilder probably has the record: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler) directed by his mate, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, David Lean) which steals the William Holden directly from Wilder’s STALAG 17, The Shop Around the Corner (1940, Ernst Lubitsch) directed by Wilder’s mentor. But it’s perfectly legitimate.

    I wonder if Anderson and Forbes weren’t both feeling a bit neglected when they made their lists. Certainly they deserved more credit for their work. At one point Forbes seems to have been single-handedly carrying the British film industry on his back (and he commissioned THE RAILWAY CHILDREN, hooray!). Bunuel’s list would make sense in the same way if he wrote it during his wilderness years.

  3. Hmm… I wonder… is “Lawrence Knight” a pseudonym???
    Anyhoo… glad you championed Kurosawa’s Seance, but apart from that… I saw Seance/Wet Afternoon on its first release – I was 14 – Southend Odeon – and it haunted me from that point on. Then I bought the dvd a few years ago, and insisted the husband watch it. It’s now haunting him, quietly and unobtrusively.

    I seem to recall “Forecast 2/-”, or something similar, was to be found at racecourses (horses, that is) and tracks (greyhounds, that is) and was to do with a predetermined bet made on “forecasted” winners (i.e. by the sporty press – like the Queen Mum’s favourite paper – and radio). But I may be utterly wrong. Nonetheless I much enjoyed your catalogue of Forbes’s intuitive locales and signage – not being remotely into semiotics I don’t have the vocabulary of Theory to explain these lovely phenomena, but they do turn up in the most unexpected places.

    As you brought up the Japanese connection, you might be interested in checking out ‘nensha’, or ‘thermographic projection’, and perhaps read my acquaintance Mark Adnum’s essay “Retro Virus – Did AIDS Perform Nensha?” in Bright Lights Film Journal, which develops the theme you established here.

    The Public Eye was often given on a double bill with The Private Ear. Both by Peter Shaffer. The latter play was adapted as a rather dismal US movie called ‘The Pad and How to Use It’, one of those clunky titles beloved of US producers trying to grab the flying coattails of an earlier hit, in this case The Knack and How to Get It.
    The Public Eye was, I think, produced at the Comedy Theatre in Panton Street. Certainly Shaffer’s earler, first effort – I think Five Finger Exercise – was presented there, under ‘club’ conditions to circumvent the Lord Chamberlain who wouldn’t put up with the slightest whiff of guy-on-guy homoerotic or even homosocial frolics on the UK’s stages. The play’s producer was, later on, much later, my boss. She headed a distinguished music agency and one of my jolliest memories of working for her was when I was sent off to pick up Segovia and drive him around London. Hyde Park Corner terrified him.

    Oh bugger. There was a Forbes connection I was going to get to and now I can’t remember what it was or is and I’ve talked myself into a corner. Nothing new there.

    Lovely post, thanks.

  4. Lawrie Knight:

    Shaffer’s The Public Eye was also filmed, by Carol Reed, under the title Follow Me. Very good John Barry score on that.

    Going to look up the nensha article now, thanks!

  5. […] first time I wrote a piece about “things I read off the screen” it was about SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON. It was a film which recreated vividly a lost world of Walpamur Liquid and other strange, esoteric […]

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