SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The First Temptation of Albert ~ The moment U.S TV series 'Little House on the Prairie' stumbled towards the dark side with controversial two-parter; 'Sylvia', starring a young Olivia Barash!


This review has nasty plot spoilers in a mask lurking in the woods - watch the epsisode behind the sofa before reading!  

Remember 'Little House on the Prairie', the show that began with a sickly sweet theme tune and three girls running down a hillside, tumbling over wildflowers while their parents looked down from a horse and carriage grinning proudly? TV drama doesn't get more wholesome and full of the goodness of homebaked apple pie as this!

Well, that's what we all thought, once. And for the most part the long-running US TV series, 'Little House on the Prairie' was exactly that - wholesome and as life fattening as apple pie. Based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder about a family growing up in 19th Century American West and living life to the full - whatever hardships came their way, in a place called Walnut Grove, somewehere in Minnesota; this was a story that was sometimes harsh and fierce, but equally often as cute as a handmade button on a lonely sackcloth.

Starring  former Bonanza star Michael Landon as Charles Ingalls and young Melissa Gilbert at his daughter, Laura, the TV version of the true stories never shyed away from covering serious topics such as childhood illness, unexpected death, racial prejudice and life-changing injury or illness, on the small screen including, of course - (between adverts); sudden blindness for eldest daughter Mary, played by Melissa Sue Anderson.

A good many of the earlier seasons of Little House (the show ran to nine seasons and was followed by a few TV movies after the show went off air in 1983 after a good innings of close to a decade) focused on friendships made, lost and later repaired between the Ingalls girls and some rather odd others - most notably Willie and Nellie, the annoying children of the equally annoying parents (though the Dad wasn't quite so bad!) - Harriet and Nels Oleson who owned the Walnut Grove general store. I always found mad mum Harriet Oleson a hugely annoying character (ok, she was meant to be deliberately annoying, but still - after nine seasons, it was enough already, even after the first episode it was probably enough already too) but Nellie - a blonde pigtailed brat with a face straight out of an especially demonic horror movie, was kind of the best character in the whole show, certainly the most terrifying. Not only did she have a surreal, plasticy, almost otherworldly edge to her character, she was also, rather unnervingly - like a cross between Shirley Temple and Regan from 'The Exorcist'.

Throughout all the trials, tribulations and certain occasional death (probably while falling under a carriage) or contracting some nasty illness, there was also plenty of humour to be had. Sometimes, this reliance on comedy value caused intense brain mummification - usually when Harriet and Nels spent an entire episode screaming and shouting at each other, moving out, moving back in, and so on. Or when the local school teacher argued again with the Board of Governors about the value of teaching French or dealing with a new kid troublemaker from the wrong side of the grove.

In later episodes, daughter Laura met and fell in love with cute but dim Almonzo aka 'Manly' (Laura's words, not mine!) and stories followed about whether Laura should carry on being a teacher when married to 'Manly', or whether they should have babies and various other non life-threatening traumas. Although, actually, newborn babies never lasted long in Walnut Grove.

In one especially stupid episode (though quite fun at times) called 'The Nephews', Laura and Almonzo have to look after the bratty kids of Almonzo's brother, Royal and his wife Millie - a well-to-do modern couple (well, 19th Century-modern) who don't believe in telling their children 'no', ever, let alone giving them a smack on the bottom once in a while. Cue: Laura diving into a freezing lake to save bratty kids Myron and Rupert from certain death before the two seedlings of the devil (no relation to the devil that spawned Nellie) appear behind her, laughing away at innocent Auntie Laura's soaking wet gullibility. Laura gets her revenge by pouring a bucket of water over the kids, in a pre-social services world, this was the done thing.

Another especially terrible (though admitedly sort of surreal and totally sinister) 'Little House' episode sees Nellie move away and Nels and Harriet deciding to adopt a Nellie-clone, one that's equally bratty and ready to be put in pigtails and pretty dresses by mad mother Harriet Oleson ('The Reincarnation of Nellie' Parts 1&2/ 1981) as poor Nellie had been. This new girl - Nancy, was almost as scary a character as Nellie herself, just a bit more unsettling, perhaps because she looked less convincing in her role. There was a faraway look to this girl's eyes, as if she had just killed half the crew, had lunch, and come back on set, splashes of blood on her brand new white dress. No wonder the actress who played Nancy - Allison Ballson - also appeared  in penny dreadful horror films such as 1980's 'The Hearse' and 1981's 'Looker'. These kind of lighthearted episodes - the comedy interludes, only seem to make the ones where all hell breaks loose, even more shocking.


'Little House on the Prairie' has always been a well-loved, fondly-remembered show - deservedly, as it seemed unafraid to cover all bases; from heart-squeezing sadness to utterly silly comedy. This was Michael Landon's show - the towering, rugged, warm-hearted US TV star had already endeared a nation of viewers to his side for his role as Joe Cartwright in 'Bonanza', a gun-toting slice of family-valued American Western life. Landon had written and directed episodes of Bonanza and went on to write, direct (and executive produce) many of the Little House episodes. When the final TV movie finished shooting, Landon was said to have been moved to tears as he watched the sets being destroyed (by the cast themselves).

Landon died young, aged 55, from pancreatic cancer and will also be remembered for the classic 1957 film 'I Was a Teenage Werewolf' as well as the TV series, that followed 'Little House' - 'Highway to Heaven'. But what I liked most about this man Landon, was the way he brought so many tough, hard-hitting, often quite violent storylines into the 'Little House' series from time to time to coat the sugar decay, like a mean-spirited boy placing a dead frog in a jug of milkshake at his sister's 10th birthday party.

These wilder, more reckless, darker episodes are the ones many of us with a certain love of sinister tales remember the most, and seemed to fit well alongside Nellie Olsen's freakouts (Nellie being the Little House's own little girl version of Stephen King's 'Carrie White').

Fast rewind yourself back to Season 6 of Little House on the Prairie (first broadcast 1979-1980). This was notable (for fans of the wild and weird world of exploitation television) for at least three stories that will appeal to genre fans. First off, we have 'the werewolf episode', broadcast January 1980 - 'The Werewolf of Walnut Grove'. One of the later stars of the show was young Matthew Labyorteaux as Albert, a runaway adopted by Charles Ingalls and who, in later series, was given the best storylines until the show as good as centred around this kid, who could act traumatised one moment, cheeky and cocky the next. Most of the time, Albert had a certain amount of gravitas about him - he was, of course, at the end of his run, the cast member most likely to meet the most traumatic, weepy of fates. And so he did.

Before that time, while young Albert was still relatively happy and healthy, he was allowed a homage to Hollywood horror as a werewolf curse was made up by the boy to scare off the newest bully in Walnut Grove. Albert's werewolf make-up is pretty good (clearly not his own work though!) as was Michael Landon's in 'I Was a Teenage Werewolf' that the episode here is clearly intended as a tribute to. As an entry in werewolf lore, it's not bad - there are plenty of the usual raw ingredients present and correct essential for any werewolf tale: locked shed doors as the moon gets full; a boy in chains to prevent him breaking loose and wrecking havoc, and plenty of references ( a deliciously accurate touch) to Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould's 'The Book of Were-Wolves' first published in 1865. Horror fans will love the day a werewolf came to Walnut Grove (sort of!) if only for the scraps of references that abound to the hairy horror in literature and cinema.

A couple of episodes later and 'Little House' tripped further into darkness with three episodes that jangled the nerves and rattled family-friendly viewing forever. First; 'Darkness is my Friend' finds sisters Laura and Mary (who is running the local school for the blind) trapped alone at Mary's place of work with a whole house full of sleeping blind children at the mercy of a group of escaped convicts, one of whom has a leg injury from a bullet wound.

The convicts persuade Laura to run to find a doctor to save the heavily bleeding man's life - instead, she runs through the dark and stormy (of course!) night to fetch her dad (yes, it's reliable Michael Landon as Little Joe, I mean - Pa Ingalls to the rescue) instead. When the real doc arrives (kindly Doc Baker, reliably played by the wonderfully lined-of-face Kevin Hagen) he gets a nasty bump to the head for his trouble (actually -really nasty for a daytime TV show), while one of the convicts goes after Pa Ingalls and daughter Mary with a shotgun.

This is a surprisingly violent episode from the off, there's some real terror on show here and (surprisingly) there's a memorable scene with Landon hiding behind a door when a shotgun blast splinters through the wood, causing him to be propelled back across the room, at least seriously wounded if not dead. Landon himself is standing at the door when the explosion detonates to simulate a shotgun blast with some considerable pyrotechnic force - these days there would be a stuntman standing in for the leading man for sure! Perhaps most disturbing of all is the climax of the episode where blind Mary is cornered by a shotgun-wielding thug who drops the gun with a grin and approaches her - cornering her, with clear intentions beyond simple murder. Come the next season, and the 'Sylvia' episodes take this theme to a far more shocking conclusion.

One more episode from Season 6 that focuses on overwhelming torment and comes complete with one especially harrowing scene, appears in the two-parter; 'May We Make Them Proud' in which young Albert tries out smoking in the basement of the blind school, leaving a still alight pipe in a clothes basket that results in a tragic fire. A helper at the school, and a regular character in the show - Alice Garvey, stays upstairs to rescue Mary Ingalls's baby as fire rages below, promising her that her baby will be ok and that she needs to get outside while she can. Alice tells Mary that she will follow behind with the baby. The next sight we see is this woman at a top window, fire surrounding her, clutching the crying child, trying to escape. She smashes the glass and looks out. There's a close-up - an awful vision, of this woman screaming one last time for help before flames envelop both her and the baby she is holding. There's no expected happy ending. In the history of television, there are few more disturbing or unexpected (especially at the time of broadcast) scenes such as this.

Both 'May We Make Them Proud' and 'Darkness Is My Friend' prepare the way (and were perhaps clear indicators of taking such heartbreaking, violent and undoubtedly controversial scenes to some kind of extreme) for the two-parter 'Sylvia' in Season 7, the episode that destroyed Little House's wholesomeness forever.

There's a new girl in school - fourteen year old Sylvia Webb (played by Olivia Barash) who has clearly, as is commented on by those around her, developed faster than other girls of her age. So much so that her own father demands she tape down her chest. The fact isn't lost on Albert and his friends who sneak around Sylvia's place after flicking through an underwear catalogue - teenage hormones stirring. Sylvia's father, Hector Webb (played by Royal Dano, just about one of the most famous character actors of all time, with a career spanning nearly half a century and that ended with Stephen King's The Dark Half in 1993) chasing them away.

Hector goes, basically - ape, and spends all his time making sure Sylvia stays away from Albert, as the two develop a relationship. Then tragedy strikes - walking back from school, Sylvia is menaced by a man in the shadows who is wearing a mime artist's mask, and tight black clothing. The girl returns home, sobbing, staggering past her father to the bed. Hector demands to know what's wrong, but his daughter won't say. When Doc Baker declares, some time later, that the girl is pregnant - what really happened that night becomes clearer. And it's Albert that will be taking the blame.

Hector Webb heads to the Ingalls house after a violent breakdown, one that leads to him menacing Albert with a shotgun. Albert eventually flees with Sylvia, taking a rest in a barn where he leaves her to go and steal money from the local blacksmith; Irv Hartwig (Richard Jaeckel, another leading Hollywood supporting actor, here seething with calm, contained rage) where he has been working to earn money to marry Sylvia and leave Walnut Grove for good. As Sylvia waits at the barn, the masked rapist returns. The girl hits her stalker in the face with a plank of wood and tries to climb up a ladder just as Charles Ingalls, Hector Webb and Albert return. The face of Sylvia's attacker is no surprise - it's Irv, who has removed the mask and now goes for Albert, ready to smash the boy's skull in with a plank of wood - before Sylvia's father shoots him at point blank range in the back. It's too late for Sylvia as she has fallen from the ladder and lies on the ground, as good as dead.

'Sylvia' is an epsiode of TV drama that, once seen, is hard to forget. It's possibly the best espisode of 'Little House on the Prairie', if only for being so daring and different, upsetting and intense. It's a little bit mawkish at times, sure - especially when Albert and Sylvia talk about getting married and being so much in love, but in a way, this intensity, makes for a clearer jolt than a spot of playful petting.

Albert, in his own way (not far removed from the obsession of the rapist himself) is clearly obsessed with Sylvia, and dominates the girl to such an extent that things occasionally veer slightly towards the unhealthy side on his part. You never really get the feeling that Sylvia takes their relationship as seriously as Albert does. It's quite unsettling to see a usually calm, slightly self-righteous cast member to act so out of character. Maybe not entirely out of character - in many ways Albert has often come across as being the most wayward of all the children in Walnut Grove, sometimes unnervingly intense, certainly liable to do strange things when out of sorts - remember that in the previous series he had caused his sister's baby to be burned alive after leaving a smoking pipe in the basement of the blind school and covered-up responsibility; enough to screw up any young boy for life.

The final scenes of this two-part episode see Albert visit Sylvia in her bedroom as the adults wait outside. She is lying in her bed. There had been some cryptic talk outside from Doc Baker of the chances of Sylvia's recovery that resulted in a slight bowing of heads about how badly injured Sylvia had actually been, but in a clever touch - it's never mentioned what her injuries are or even that these could be life-threatening. In fact, we don't even really know Sylvia has died by the time the credits roll, she just goes quiet and in future episodes is never spoken of again.

In the closing scenes, Albert approaches the bed where Sylvia rests, and tells the girl how much he loves her; that they have their parents permission to get married and she tells him all about her plans for a church wedding, as if life will still go on. It doesn't, her life ends quietly. Sylvia asks Albert if she is going to die. Of course, just like the wedding plans, there has to be a lie from Albert here too.

'Sylvia' surprises the viewer with a clearly upsetting storyline and its dark and menacing touch; the rapist in the woods is a genuinely frightening figure and characters in 'Little House' are never usually as threatened as Sylvia is here (well, except for Mary in the previous season's 'Darkness Is My Friend' that had its worst nightmare stopped literally in its tracks - with a punch from Pa Ingalls!).

Royal Dano as Sylvia's father plays the role of incensed, over-protective, perhaps crazed father to perfection, adding huge pathos and regret to his portrayal. The moment Hector arrives in the pitch dark and the driving rain, is especially moving -  standing outside the Ingalls house with a shotgun, calling out for Albert, ready to end the boy's life, in a confrontation that ends in a brutal fight between himself and Charles Ingalls. Here we get the two parents of the children in love, fighting for their own offspring, both men carrying different opinions on how to go about stopping this relationship their children have entered into as best they can - Charles ends the madness in a moment that sees Hector (old, frail and weak) punched twice in the face by a man half his age, twice his strength. But it works. From now on, Hector seems free of madness and rage - clarity restored. The old man lies in the mud, sobbing, being held by Charles, hugging for dear life - the moment of madness has passed. It's time to sort things out. Sadly - there is of course, no happy ending to follow.

And what of Sylvia?  As played by Olivia Barash, she remains one of the show's most memorable guest stars and her role is played with a rare quiet seclusion, calm, uncertainty. There's no freak show here - no sugar-sweet little girl in love to feel sorry for, just a matter of fact portrayal of a girl caught in the crossfire between growing up, being kept a child and an act of violence that ends the chances of either.

I don't think Sylvia is especially 'in love' with Albert, as he is with her (not at first anyway) but the boy promises some kind of escape, something that she longs for most of all. Eventually, that escape is in a loving relationship and that promised, but impossible, wedding - even a new and happy life with her baby (a child that Albert was at first willing to take the blame for as being his own, preferring to damage his own reputation rather than an unknown father being even more damaging to hers).

Olivia Barash brings a quirky, intense and ultimately tragic edge to Sylvia and went on to star in some of the greatest and most unusual cult movies of all time, films that include 'Patty Hearst' (1988), 'Tuff Turf' (1985) and especially Alex Cox's magnificent 'Repo Man' in 1984.

When the Little House on the Prairie episode 'Sylvia' (Parts 1 and 2) was repeated on the UK's True Entertainment channel recently, it was the only episode not broadcast as a daytime screening, but went out after the watershed at 9pm. It's a harrowing, disturbing episode that feels slightly out of place (though evidence from the season before proves that it was not all that out of place!), written by Michael Landon with a no-hold-barred approach that's refreshing in TV drama.

I don't think the episode is exploitative as such but it is upsetting and unnerving; brave and certainly filled with many images that remain memorable, that include: the man in the mime mask and the following of the girl through the woods; the blacksmith at work realising the girl is alone again - but there's no reaction across his face to suggest his next course of action when Albert reveals the girl's location; Sylvia's unexpected fall from the ladder almost as an aside, as good as ignored; the confrontation of the two fathers in the mud and rain; the final impossible promise made at a young girl's death bed - the girl's eyes wide with anxious calm as death approaches; the unforgettable crackling of a pile of planks across the floor of the barn that Albert stumbles loudly over when he leaves and that the rapist treads softly upon when he arrives and that becomes a kind of cushion of death for two characters (the good and the bad) in the end - images that remain like provocative ghosts in the head long after viewing. 'Sylvia' also boasts one of the most downbeat endings in the history of US TV (certainly in a popular family entertainment show).

The only thing is; I don't think 'Little House On The Prairie' ever recovered from this episode, although there were other two-parters in the final, slowly declining couple of seasons ahead that took the show into further dark waters, including: 'Days of Sunshine, Days of Shadow' (Almonzo's pneumonia and stroke); 'He Was Only Twelve' (a young boy critically shot in a bank raid); 'Home Again' (Albert's morphine addiction') and then, in 'A Child With No Name' (a single parter almost at the end of the series run) a second Ingalls sister loses a baby. 

'Little House' scattered these bleaker espisodes around freely from time to time. Some may remember an especially harrowing episode from Season 2 in which a wound on Caroline Ingalls's leg gets infected while the rest of the family are on a picnic and she becomes trapped in a house alone considering amputation as the wound spreads. Then, right at the end of the extended life of 'Little House', we had the final few TV movies that also notched up a whole lot of heartbreak with 'Look Back To Yesterday' (1983) being especially traumatic as Albert faces a losing battle with leukemia and the finale of the series - 'The Last Farewell' (1984) in which the entire set of Walnut Grove is smashed up by the cast. It was Landon's last hurrah (in the episode, the destruction was written as a way to stop the plans of developers, though it's rumoured this was also Michael Landon's way of sticking two fingers up at the network for dropping his beloved show!).

I don't think anyone will ever do today what Michael Landon occasionally did to family entertainment back then. In many ways he deconstructed the entire series of Little House novels that the TV series was based upon.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

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