Waterloo East Theatre, London
It sounds like the most obvious thing in the world to say, but the 1970s was a very different era from today. In Britain, industrial strikes were a regular occurence and there was a sombreness that permeated the zeitgeist. Public information films were shown alongside adverts on television, warning about the dangers of trespassing in dangerous areas, driving (“Don’t dazzle, dip your headlights”) or childhood dangers (“Charley says don’t talk to strangers…”).
While disasters, conspiracy theories and dystopias made up a sizeable chunk of cinematic fayre, television writers such as Nigel Kneale captured the imagination of the British public with programmes such as Quatermass and The Stone Tape. In doing so, he successfully tapped into the unconscious consensus that the powers-that-be are keeping secrets – that just beneath the surface there are disturbing truths that would horrify society… Of course, with what we know now about the seventies in the UK, such ‘paranoia’ was well-deserved. Which brings us to Unburied.
Much like the unaired ‘Shada’ storyline of Doctor Who, Unburied is purported to be a programme from the late 1970s that was not broadcast. At all. Carrie Marx plays an investigator who has followed the “breadcrumbs” regarding this programme and realises (to use a Churchillian quote) that it is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. The audience are spectators as Marx records a podcast regarding the backstory of Unburied.
In some ways, the presentation is like a lecture, as Marx eloquently explains how Unburied sits at the centre of a web, with threads linked to oral history, spiritualism, ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ and the 1970s in general. But as in most narratives, the devil is in detail and the gaps when seen in reverse point to something wholly different…
Unburied is a ‘slow burner’ and takes its time with its pace. Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, as it the eagle-eyed who will notice the ‘small’ things that occur do have significance, without them being immediately obvious.
The show doesn’t shy away from the sillier aspects of four decades ago, but it is even-handed – and in some cases reverential – of the way programmes back then assumed the inherent intelligence of their audience, without ‘dumbing down’. Similarly, while Unburied has televisual elements, they are not its main selling point. Rather it is the conceit of the show and its execution, given plausibility by Marx’s performance.
But if Unburied leaves us with one message, it’s not that the past isn’t an unfathomable place. Rather, it’s that knowledge always has a price and that the ‘ignorance’ of what one knows can be preferable to the truth of the past.