Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Alight on the Night

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Alight on the Night

Article excerpt


STAND aside Sammy Peckinpah. For real horror in the Seventies, we had no need of your Straw Dogs or your Head of Alfredo Garcia, for we had public information films to petrify us.

Made by the Central Office of Information, and shown before the watershed, these miniature gorefests terrorised an entire generation of children, with their graphic depictions of boys being electrocuted while retrieving frisbees from pylons, smashed fruit simulating the passage of a head through a car windscreen, grannies hurtling downstairs to their death (courtesy of an ill-fitting stair rod), gentlemen strapped to a bed in the throes of a grand mal while vomiting excrement (following a nip on the ankle from a smuggled rabid shihtzu), and Ed "Stewpot" Stewart's daughter warning him and us never ever to speak to strangers (no wonder his career as a chat-show host never quite got off the ground). And who can forget the senile grandfather who fell asleep late at night, dropping his lighted cigarette into the recesses of an armchair not bearing the BSI kitemark, and consequently getting very badly burned? Well, they don't mess about at the crematorium.

I had forgotten about the selfimmolating senior citizen until I saw last night's Spontaneous Human Combustion (C5), a programme that should itself have carried a public information health warning reading "may cause drowsiness - do not operate heavy machinery while watching".

The makers had acquired photographs of several US pensioners who'd been burnt to a crisp from the knees up in the comfort and privacy of their own armchairs, and they tried to lure us in at the outset by shamelessly lying that, "the phenomenon has never been explained by science ... until now". I use the word "lying" without fear of litigation, because during my 329 years as a TV reviewer, I've discovered that programmes about this occurrence are one of the hardy perennials of TV scheduling, and every documentary I've ever seen on the subject has purported to have unearthed the definitive scientific explanation. Yet, mysteriously, the topic always rises phoenix-like Burnt offering: forensic photo-analyst John Stefaniac from its own ashes, and pops up again, a year later, on another channel, falsely disguised as a supernatural enigma that still baffles the rational mind.

"The Reeser case first triggered the mystery of spontaneous human combustion back in 1951," said the narrator (presumably unfamiliar with the lengthy description in Bleak House, which Dickens had written a century earlier), and we were shown the same few pictures of Mary Hardy Reeser that are always wheeled out on such occasions.

Dubbed "the Cinder Lady" by the Florida tabloids of the time, she'd been burnt alive in her armchair, and Larry Arnold (the selfproclaimed "world's leading expert on SHC" who appeared to be unencumbered by any scientific training whatsoever) insisted there could only be one possible explanation. …

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