“Gaslighting” has become a bit of a hot term in recent years. It seems to be particularly in vogue for opinion pieces on abusive relationships and political discourse. For those unfamiliar with the expression (or are you? Because I swear, I told you? sorry – gaslighting joke), “gaslighting” is used to describe a form of psychological abuse where a person or group makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories. Most of us know someone who is being gaslit, or who is accused of being a gaslighter: an abusive partner; a dodgy nurse at an old person’s home; a psychopathic co-worker; a presenter on Sky News.
The term isn’t exactly a new one: it has its origins in a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, Gas Light (also known as Gaslight or Angel Street). This was hugely successful – it became one of the longest running non musicals in Broadway history, was filmed a number of times (notably in 1944 with Ingrid Bergman), and spawned a score of imitators. As the critic David Shipman once put it, there was a time in the 1940s when you could not walk into a cinema without seeing someone try to drive a woman insane: Rebecca, Suspicion, Dark Waters, My Name is Julia Ross, So Evil My Love, The Spiral Staircase, Cry Wolf, etc. The sub-genre tailed off in the 1950s but revived with Les Diaboliques and has never gone out of fashion (Scent of Fear, Rosemary’s Baby, What Lies Beneath, The Girl on the Train).
Several early Australian TV plays were based on gaslighting thrillers. The ABC did 1958 versions of Gaslight and another Hamilton play, The Governess. In 1960, there was Reflections in Dark Glasses, about which I’ve written previously. And in 1961, we got Corinth House.
This was based on a 1948 play by the prolific British author Pamela Hansford Johnson, who wrote novels, biographies and essays as well as plays (some trivia: she was once married to an Australian writer, Gordon Neil Stewart, before marrying the novelist-chemist-playwright Sir CP Snow, with whom she co-authored several stage works). Corinth House was never turned into a feature film but was adapted several times for TV and radio, before the ABC decided to film it for local screens in 1961. The director and screenwriter of this production was Bill Bain, who later made Harlequinade (about which I have also written elsewhere).
The action takes place in an English residential hotel. One of its residents is Miss Malleson (Enid Lorimer), a retired headmistress, who is visited by ex-pupil, Madge Donnythrope (Diana Perryman). It turns out that years ago at school, Madge was disciplined by Malleson for an unspecified offence (“she bought disgrace on herself”) and still has not got over it: when the former headmistress refuses to provide an important reference, Madge determines to get revenge by convincing the other hotel residents that Miss Malleson is insane.
Corinth House is a fun slice of old-school gaslighting melodrama, which remains unexpectedly fresh to modern audiences in several ways: its depiction of the impact of childhood trauma, for instance, plus the hints of something kinky going on under the surface (what was the offence exactly? Something sexual? Is the female boarding house manager keen on Madge?), and its all-too-believable portrayal of the ease with which everyone assumes the old lady has gone crazy. The central idea is very strong – I mean, who hasn’t wanted to get revenge on an old school teacher? – and it’s nice to see such a female-driven thriller (there’s only one man in the cast, and he does not do much). It provides a great leading role for Enid Lorimer, little remembered these days but a name at the time because of her stage success in England; she’s excellent. Some of the other performers are hammy, but the story holds and there are nice directorial touches, such as Audrey Teesdale’s maid constantly sneaking a smoke.
The production was one of the few Australian TV plays to sell to America – it screened in 1961 as part of International Hour on CBS (which had also shown Outpost). I wish the story had been adapted to be set in Australia, but Corinth House was still entertaining.
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