Unexplained Laughter (1988)

“This whole valley is a sort of extended nuthouse.”

Film versions of novels fascinate me in a very general sense. I am always interested to see how the screenwriter and director chose to interpret a book I’ve enjoyed. Of course, like many people, I am usually disappointed in the film versions of much-loved books. Happily, I can easily say that I was not disappointed in Unexplained Laughter–the film based on the novel by Alice Thomas Ellis. When I discovered that Diana Rigg starred in the film–taking the role of the main character, Lydia, well I just wasn’t going to be satisfied until I saw the film.

Lydia–a middle-aged writer–retreats to her cottage in a remote part of Wales. Lydia is trying to recover (in her own inimitable fashion) from a failed romance with the faithless Finn. For some obscure reason (that not even Lydia can fathom) she drags along acquaintance, “volunteer Samaritan” Betsy for the trip. The two women are complete opposites. Lydia is world-weary, full of marvelous one-liners. She doesn’t believe in most of the things other people believe in, and she has a tendency to scandalize poor Betsy. The ability to flummox Betsy gives Lydia a sort of savage satisfaction. Betsy has a very rosy image of the world–she’s arrived at middle age with her values and belief system intact mainly because she manages to hear what she wants to, and thus she avoids the more unpleasant aspects of life. Lydia, however, has an uncanny knack for reading people, and with this talent she analyzes–unmercifully–some of the locals. Although Lydia plans a “get-away-from-it-all-holiday” she finds herself in a nest of local intrigue–adultery, secrets, and broken love affairs.

The made-for-television film Unexplained Laughter placed more emphasis on the supernatural element within the story. The ghostly laughter that Lydia hears (and Betsy doesn’t) is much more unsettling somehow in the film. Some of the best scenes in the novel were cut to a bare minimum, but that was acceptable. One expects some things to be sacrificed–but the essence of the novel remains intact, and the film version managed to convert the story to an extremely watchable film. The film quite rightly takes advantage of the visual. The countryside was beautiful–and yet mysterious too. Diana Rigg as Lydia delivers a stellar performance. Her contempt for the lascivious Doctor shows with a cast of her eyes, and a slight flare to her nostrils. Sarcasm drips so easily from Rigg as she delivers line after cutting line. There’s one point when the Doctor declines tea and asks instead for an alcoholic drink. Diana Rigg modestly and regretfully claims there’s “not a drop in the house“–while she stashes a bottle of vodka. Rigg’s portrayal of Lydia creates a character who was exactly as I had imagined. The supporting cast all gave excellent performances–and even Bueno (and I think he is a particularly difficult character to cast) was quite perfect. Fans of the Alice Ellis Thomas novel, do yourselves a giant favour and seek out a copy of this film. You will not be disappointed.

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5 Comments

Filed under British television

5 responses to “Unexplained Laughter (1988)

  1. Lil davies

    where would l get a copy of ” Unexplained laughter.”

    I have tried for years with no success.

    • Guy A. Savage

      I found my copy on e-bay a few years ago. A marvellous film and an even better book.

      • Lil davies

        many thanks guy…..shall look into that…

        • Guy A. Savage

          I kept looking and then bingo, there was a copy, so you never know….
          Thanks for stopping by.

          • Hi, Guy. I was just looking for a copy of the book and discovered that you have reviewed the film. Since you were the one who introduced me to Ellis in the first place, I’m delighted to see that you will also be the one to introduce me to the film version of this wonderful novel. Best, Mary

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