Saki and Sredni Vashtar

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I first came across this story on television one evening when I was 10 or 11. I can’t remember exactly who was reading it – in the short clip below it’s Tom Baker. It’s an episode from a series called ‘Late Night Story’ which fits the era so this is likely to be the version I saw, although I’m not sure why it should have been screened early in the evening: the opening titles are among the more disturbing examples of introduction sequences to TV programmes I’ve seen, and Tom Baker adds to the whole gothic experience in no small measure.

I remember being riveted by the strangeness of the story – here was something very different, almost like Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected – at the time showing on TV and not for children unless glimpsed unknown.

In this story, the sickly Conradin lives with his guardian, Mrs de Ropp, a sour and forbidding creature who drains any spirit from life. To counter this, in an outbuilding Conradin keeps animals – secretly – including the god-like ferret of the title, Sredni Vashtar.

At the time it was unlike anything I had come across, with its macabre seething and a conclusion unheard of outside a book of fairy tales. This was all the more shocking because of the polite Edwardian domesticity in which it is set, with toast-making rituals and tea. (Some may notice the recent theme of stoats and buttered toast and wonder that my memory has been jogged, although I think a love of toast may be simply what made these stories appeal… nothing like a glowing fireside and toast…)

One of my brothers soon bought a book of Saki’s collected stories (including some from the collection ‘Beast and Superbeasts’) and there were many more twisting tales to be found, often featuring wild nature disturbing a civilisation of excessive order and pomposity.

Saki (real name H.H Munro) was killed in the First World War, but his coolly-delivered, carefully-measured stories could have come from any time. In 1981 the director Andrew Birkin won a Bafta award for his 30-minute film adaptation which is worth seeking out (I believe the director has his own website with a download link).

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4 thoughts on “Saki and Sredni Vashtar

  1. forestfae

    I love the Tales of the Unexpected series..and Roald Dahl is one of my all time fav authors.
    I have had that same eerie sense of what you refer to a few times as a child, when a program is seemingly for children, but then its almost like because no grown ups would have been watching it.. a little bit more nastiness comes out than would generally be accpeted, or, there is something so weird/outrageous/horrid that it leaves the child watching horrified, or in my case, in awe šŸ˜‰

    Cool post.

    P.s might you be a film noir fan as well? oh and one more question, did you find the old Vincent Price movies horrible deliscious in a scary way too as a child too? Oh and one more question (lol, sorry I’m on a roll now) do you like Tim Burton…??

    • I think there was probably a lot more freedom in that decade to pursue ideas that individuals came up with, so producers of children’s TV included some top notch writers, and they didn’t underestimate our intelligence. I watched a lot of the old 30s and 40s films of ghost stories as a child, and I do like a few film noir-ish things (Laura I saw not long ago, and I like Hitchcock). I liked Edward Scissorhands a lot, but I think I’m a bit sniffy about Tim Burton – I like really understated settings where not much happens, I look for atmospheres first, he’s too exciting for me!

  2. forestfae

    Yes, probably.
    Laura was brilliant yes, but my fav all time Hitchcock film would have to be The birds. I remember seeing it on a sunday night when I was about 12 with my then best friend.

    We were both scared silly by it, and for weeks after checked out all birds in the vicinity with a beady eye,lol.

    Yes Tim Burton’s movies can be very far from understated, I have to agree with you on that šŸ™‚

  3. Just as I have gone back to reread Saki and savor his play with words, I find this and cannot help but smile. Thank you! (and yes, Laura was brilliant)

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