“I want you to tell me what you know of a tall blonde woman in a long, flowing white dress.”
On February 5th, 1969, ABC aired what is generally considered to be the worst half-hour of network television, the first episode of a sketch comedy show called Turn-On. The show managed to be both offensive and incomprehensible, which is quite a trick, and on at least one station, it was cancelled during the first episode.
The conceit of Turn-On was that it was produced by a computer, which spliced together lots of little shards of not-funny. The show didn’t have any sets; it was just filmed against a stark white background. An odd-looking character would appear and do something strange, and then they’d cut to something else.
Almost all of the jokes were about sex, and sometimes they just flashed the word SEX! on the screen, in various colors. They also flashed captions with jokey references to sex and gay people, including “God Save the Queens,” “Free Oscar Wilde,” “Make Love Not Wine,” and “The Amsterdam Levee Is a Dike.” Sometimes the screen would be divided into four comic-strip panels, and the sketch would be performed in discrete chunks, one in each panel. The ending credits were split up into pieces and aired throughout the show.
WEWS, an ABC affiliate in Cleveland, took the show off the air during the first commercial break, and just didn’t show the rest of the episode. I don’t know what they filled the extra twenty minutes with, but it was better than Turn-On, so it could have been literally anything.
And on the same day — February 5th, 1969 — ABC also aired the last episode of Dark Shadows written by Ron Sproat. ABC was just having a bad day overall.
My first blog post about Ron Sproat was episode 239, back in May 1967, and since then, I have been involved in an entirely one-sided war with the man.
The major complaints about Sproat’s writing are as follows: he adds tons of time-wasting filler, he thinks the characters should recap constantly, and he writes flat, functional dialogue that makes every character sound the same. For more information on Ron Sproat’s many failings, please see pretty much everything I’ve ever written about Dark Shadows. But no more! After today, Ron is gone and I never have to watch another Sproat episode ever again.
Now, I’ll admit that I was a little nervous as I approached this milestone. If Sproat somehow managed to pull a good episode together for his last show, then it wouldn’t feel like an appropriate conclusion for my Sproatnapped posts.
But, lucky me, Ron Sproat does not disappoint, in the sense that this is another infuriatingly bad episode, and for that, I must admit, I am grateful.
Let’s just start from the top.
Barnabas: That’s what she said.
Julia: Who could have murdered her?
Barnabas: That’s the mystery.
Julia: But didn’t she say? She didn’t give any indication?
Barnabas: I’ve told you everything she said.
Julia: Well, tell me again.
And that is basically the mission statement of a Ron Sproat script: We have nothing interesting to say, but let’s say it again anyway.
They’re talking about the seance from yesterday’s episode, which was also written by Sproat and didn’t accomplish anything.
Barnabas and Professor Stokes teamed up to contact the spirit of Madame Findley, the freelance occult expert who came by a couple months ago to see if there was an evil spirit loose in Collinwood that wanted to murder people. I forget if she ever found out. She ended up tumbling down the grand staircase to her death, and nobody had the heart to ask her for a final report.
So yesterday they arranged for a post-mortem exit interview, to see if La Findley had anything on her mind. She said, “Why did you call me?” and then she said, “Yes,” and then she said, “The children,” and then she said, “The panel,” and then she said, “The room,” and then she said, “I found that room,” and then she said, “I waited there for something to happen, and then… HE KILLED ME!”
Unfortunately, that’s 145 characters, so the message didn’t even go through. The whole thing was just a waste of good candles.
But now the Junior Detectives are on the case. Julia asks why Madame F mentioned the children, and Barnabas says, “Well, I can think of three possibilties.”
Julia says, “Yes?” and then Barnabas walks all the way across the set and opens the drawing room doors.
He gives the foyer a quick once-over, and then he comes back into the drawing room and closes the doors again. Then he walks back to Julia and continues the conversation.
And I have to say, that is a cynical way to fill screen time, even by Dark Shadows standards. The show has only been on for two minutes and fifteen seconds, and we’re already doing pointless perimeter checks.
But just wait until you hear what the three possibilities are.
Barnabas: First, the children are in some kind of danger, and Madame Findley wanted us to know about it. Or — that the children knew who the murderer was.
Julia: And the third?
Banabas: The third seems incredible… but it could be a reason why Madame Findley wanted us to know about the children.
Julia: What is it?
Barnabas: The children themselves killed Madame Findley!
That’s enough to get us into the opening titles, and when we come back, there’s a breathless splutter of dialogue.
Julia: The children!
Barnabas: I told you it would seem incredible.
Julia: Well, it certainly does. Why would they do it? How would they do it?
Barnabas: I don’t know, which is why I tend to discount the possibility.
And then they just start talking about something else. That is the entirety of the “maybe the children killed her” portion of today’s program.
Now, as we all know, Jonathan Frid often has a hard time remembering all of the words that he’s supposed to say, but I think Ron Sproat episodes are the hardest for him to cope with, because Sproat characters just talk and talk, and never really get anything done.
So the ship runs aground, and honestly, there’s nothing like a good chunk of Fridspeak in the middle of a Sproat scene to make you re-evaluate your feelings about the sanctity of human life.
Julia: Have you questioned them?
Julia: Well, aren’t you going to?
Barnabas: Well, I don’t think that — (looks at teleprompter) — I can get either of them to — (starts shuffling around the set) — to admit anything. David is — (looks at the floor) — is too, too clever. (looks at teleprompter) But I want them to — not — be suspicious. Of me.
Julia has a counterpoint.
Julia: Amy’s alone in her room now. Why don’t you talk to her?
Barnabas: I don’t think that would be very wise, Julia.
Julia: But, Barnabas, of the two children, I think Amy would be the one to talk to.
Barnabas: Well, that’s true.
And then he starts looking at the floor again.
Well, as you might expect, the “let’s interrogate Amy” sequence is a real barn burner.
Barnabas: Did you ever talk to her?
Barnabas: What did she say to you?
Amy: She asked me a lot of questions.
Barnabas: What kind of questions?
Amy: Funny questions.
Barnabas: Well, can you give me an example of one?
Amy: I don’t remember any of them; I just remember that she was here, and then we talked for a while, and then she went away.
And history repeats itself, apparently, because Barnabas and Amy talk for a while, and then Amy goes away.
So now it’s Julia’s turn to serve.
Julia: There’s someone else we have to go and talk to.
Julia: Chris Jennings.
Barnabas: Chris? What for?
Julia: Barnabas, I keep thinking of that strange woman who came into my room, and led us to him, while Chris was dying. Chris might know something about her, something that could lead us to clear up the mystery in this house. There might be a connection.
Barnabas: Oh, Julia. He said he knew nothing about her! He already told us that.
Ah, yes, but this is a Ron Sproat episode, and if somebody already said something, then that means it’s time for us to go and ask him to say it again. This is how Sproat builds tension, in the sense that the entire audience develops a collective migraine.
And it just goes on like that, for scene after scene. Chris says he doesn’t know anything about the strange woman, but Julia breaks out the medallion, and says that maybe he’ll remember something under hypnosis. This is the result.
Julia: I want you to tell me what you know of a tall, blonde woman in a long, flowing white dress. Do you know her?
Chris: (stares into space)
Julia: Do you know such a woman, Chris?
Chris: I… I…
Julia: Do you know her?
Julia: Think. Concentrate! A tall, blonde woman in a strange, pale flowing dress. You never saw her?
Julia: You know nothing about her?
Chris: No. Nothing.
So Julia says, “It’s no use,” and snaps her fingers, breaking the trance.
Chris comes out of the trance, and now we have to recap the dull scene that we’re currently in.
Chris: What happened?
Julia: I hypnotized you, and we talked.
Chris: Did I tell you anything?
Julia: No. I don’t think you know anything about the woman we saw.
Chris: Oh. I was hoping I did.
Julia: So were we.
And against all odds, they manage to keep talking about it.
Barnabas: We may as well go back to Collinwood, Julia. We’ll see you later, Chris.
Chris: Yes. I’m sorry you didn’t find out anything. Believe me, I’m as disappointed as you are.
Julia: I believe you, Chris.
So I’m sorry, I know at this point I’m just quoting boring dialogue in order to show how much boring dialogue there is, but it honestly feels like it’s intentional, like Sproat is deliberately crafting scenes that call attention to the absence of any meaningful content.
The characters keep saying things like “It’s no use,” and “He already told us that,” and “I’m as disappointed than you are.” I think Ron Sproat is trolling the audience.
This episode is actually one of the major turning points in the history of Dark Shadows, but it’s the sad, quiet one that nobody noticed at the time.
The other turning points are big, exciting events like Barnabas’ introduction, Julia offering to cure Barnabas, and Jonathan Frid’s first big publicity tour. Ron Sproat leaving the show is just as important, because they’re finally getting rid of the guy who thinks that Dark Shadows was better before the vampire came along.
This episode, dull as it is, completes the cycle that began all the way back in April 1967, when they opened up the mystery box and released something magical and strange. For almost two years, Barnabas, Julia, Angelique and Sam Hall have been swimming upstream, fighting against the current of traditional soapcraft to create something that nobody ever expected. When Ron Sproat leaves the show, Dark Shadows is finally free to create fast-moving, character-driven stories, featuring a cast of mad, extravagant eccentrics.
Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of Dark Shadows. It is magnificent.
Tomorrow: Barnabas Collins and the Mysterious Ghost.
Here’s a quick montage of some clips from Turn-On’s unaired second episode, which gives a little taste of what the show was like:
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Barnabas tells Julia, “Madame Findley spoke through Mrs. Johnson, and told us that she had been killed, and murdered.”
When Julia is spinning the medallion, she tells Chris, “Just keep looking at it, and listen to my voice. Do you understand?” And then she coughs a couple times.
Behind the Scenes:
After Dark Shadows, Ron Sproat wrote for a syndicated Canadian soap opera called Strange Paradise, which ran for 195 episode during 1969 and 1970. The show was heavily inspired by Dark Shadows, with storylines about witchcraft, possession and voodoo. The premise was that the characters were all trapped in a castle on a mysterious island. Sproat also wrote for other soap operas, including The Edge of Night and Capitol.
This episode was skipped when Dark Shadows aired in syndication after the show was over. The video master was damaged, and they didn’t realize there was a black and white kinescope copy. MPI found the kinescope when they started putting out Dark Shadows on videotape in 1989. Just imagine how delighted everyone was when they finally saw the “lost episode”, and it turned out to be this.
There are four more black-and-white kinescopes coming up; the next one is episode 797, from July 1969.
Tomorrow: Barnabas Collins and the Mysterious Ghost.
— Danny Horn