The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Staircase (Mystery)

Over the past few days I’ve been very much enjoying watching the old ATV series Thriller. There are two things I particularly like about it. Firstly, Brian Clemens' ingenious, fast-moving, twist-packed, suspenseful and extremely well-constructed scripts. And secondly, the prominent use of staircases within the drama.

You see, within the early 70’s suspense drama, the ‘staircase’ fulfils an important dramatic function. It acts as a structural motif, literally elevating the dynamic of the text; where characters previously only acted within a two dimensional space, that of the horizontal, they now gain a third dimension, that of the vertical. The ‘staircase’ acts as a bridge, a fulcrum, a gateway, an escalier if you like, between the ground, a place of safety, of ease of escape, of reality, and a higher state of being, a place of danger, of a lack of ease of escape, of dangerous sexual obsession, of crime, of the supernatural. The staircase leads from the hallway, our public selves, our ego, ergo civilisation, up to the bedroom, which represents our interior selves, our id, ergo the repressed animal within. We, the viewer, are invited to ascend or ‘go up the stairs’ to a forbidden zone where the threat of violence inevitably lurks. Danger rarely lurks at the bottom of the stairs unless the staircase is below ground level, and we are going into a cellar, where the dramatic function of the staircase is inverted, with the place of safety at the top, because that’s on ground level, and the place of danger at the bottom, which is in the cellar where the bodies are stored and the satanic masses take place.

Many of the stories are based around there being something nasty at the top of the stairs; playing on the inherent topographical superiority/vulnerability that a diametrical disunity on the vertical axis affords. We are instinctively afraid of that which comes from above, it has power over us. This is emphasized within the text by the use of camera angles, where the antagonists are shot from below, in order to reinforce their supremacy, their unknowability, their unassailability, their nostrils, and the protagonists – whether they be a young bride, an American back-packer on holiday, or a country policeman – are shot from above in order to draw attention to their vulnerability, their low status, and in the case of the country policemen, their bald patches.

The dramatic potential of the staircase is extremely rich and varied. Characters can creep up it. They can fall down it. They can pause half-way up to examine a mysterious family portrait. They can meet other characters half-way up. They can sit sobbing on one of the lower stairs. They can flirt playfully by sticking their head between the banisters. Young brides can have trouble getting their back-pack up the stairs and thus request the assistance of a mysterious young gentleman, thus breaking the ice. People can crouch at the top and peer down through the banisters, which afford an excellent hiding place. People can stand at the bottom and look up and see the person peering through the banisters because it turns out they don’t afford an excellent hiding place after all. And staircases will also, without exception, have a door underneath them, leading to a cubbyhole, cellar or nook within which bodies, murder weapons and sinister monk costumes may be stored.

The staircase can even be seen as a metaphor for death. It is a ‘stairway to heaven’, a place of execution, a sequence of evenly-spaced horizontal wooden ledges rising upon the diagonal that connect stability to instability, the known with the unknown, the past with the future, the living with the dead, the ground with the first or second floor (depending upon whether or not you are American). Within each step lurks the inevitable threat of violence, of the step giving way, of an ankle twisting, a foot slipping, a neck breaking, a crash—zooming, and a corpse lolling with wide open eyes on the hard stone floor. To me, the staircase functions in a liminal space, a space fraught with danger, serving as a metaphor for the series as a whole.

They literally work on multiple levels, usually two. But while ATV’s Thriller sees some excellent staircase work, I would suggest that the definitive staircase work would be found later in the 70’s, in Sapphire & Steel, particularly in ‘Story 4’ or ‘The One With The Staircase’ in which 83% of the story takes place on the eponymous staircase. It’s worked into the plot; ‘As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there.’ The rhyme and the mystery wouldn’t be nearly so effective if the action took place on the horizontal. ‘As I was going along the hall, I met a man who wasn’t tall.’ Rubbish, isn’t it?

That’s the ATV staircase, but what of the BBC staircase? Well, during the 70’s and early 80’s, the BBC only owned one staircase, a vertical winding staircase of a modernist design made of plywood. This staircase famously featured in every single episode of Blake’s 7 as well as on numerous chat shows, pop shows, comedies and dramas. If a scientist had a laboratory, if a playboy had a penthouse, if a set designer had a whim, you can be sure this staircase – forever known as the ‘Meglos staircase’ after its appearance in the Doctor Who story Snakedance - would be on view.

But what now for the future of the staircase, I hear you ask? What place does it have in modern drama? I don’t know. I think this joke has already worn thin.


  1. In the collective unconsious, the mysterious staircase could have its roots in the Jacob's Ladder myth

    Joe Orton tuned into it too (Ruffian on the Stair)

    There are a great many interesting staircases in Godard's Alphaville:

  2. I'm moved to think of the open-ended staircase in "The Stone Tape", put there for no reason other than for Mr Chekov to push Jane Asher off it at the end.

    We're having one built on stage for our next show. Thankfully, the script doesn't call for me to use it...

  3. Can we have one about giant table lamps next?

  4. TS Eliot happen had mysterious staircases in mind when he quoted Heraclitus in the epigraph to the Four Quartets:

    "The way up and the way down are one and the same"

  5. Ha ha before watching this movie, just have a glance at the mysterious staircase of Escharian staircase! This will help you watch get thru this with a different version!