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Between the Wars - 'The Silver Mask' (1973)


'The Silver Mask', based on Hugh Walpole's chilling short story of the same name, written in 1930, is Zoë's first television drama with a period setting. It was broadcast on Friday 15 June 1973 (ITV, 9-10pm) as the final episode in drama anthology series Between the Wars, made by London Weekend Television (LWT). Walpole's tale of a kind-hearted, wealthy spinster, who is taken advantage of by a sinister stranger, is among six short stories from the interwar years dramatised for the series.

'A television occasion,' declared The Times, when heralding the arrival of Between the Wars. The series was helmed by acclaimed producer Verity Lambert, who emphasised in The Stage that the period between the two World Wars 'was a unique era and a time when the short story as a form was in its heyday'. The period, Lambert added, was also 'an era of desperation' for many people across Britain, as the country experienced severe economic hardship in the shadow of war.

Sinister stranger in a shabby suit

Set in London, where the divide between rich and poor was keenly felt, 'The Silver Mask' captures the mood and tensions of the interwar years. Middle-aged Sonia Herries has every material advantage she could wish for, but her comfortable lifestyle is emotionally and spiritually impoverished. She lives alone (apart from her maid, Nora) in a cavernous townhouse and, as Walpole's story puts it, is 'always ''just outside''' her social circle.

The spinster is bored during her friend Amy Weston's soirée. For the hostess' benefit, Sonia feigns enthusiasm for the 'lovely party' – but half-hearted smiles betray her true feelings. Leaving the other guests to continue their revelry, she decides to walk home alone, in the darkness.

Having paused to admire the window displays at an upmarket shopping arcade, Sonia is unnerved when a handsome young man in a shabby suit, Henry Abbott, approaches her. Fixing his gaze on Sonia, who attempts to shield herself from the bitter cold in an expensive coat, Henry makes a thinly veiled threat: 'I don't want your pity, but I must attack your comfort'. His wife and baby are starving, he tells her quietly, while he is reduced to begging in the streets.

Henry's attention drawn to the silver mask

Suspense builds as Henry follows Sonia from the arcade all the way to her front door. Anxious to avoid making a scene so close to her neighbours, the rich spinster invites the starving stranger into her home, much against her better judgement. She offers Henry the supper that Nora had prepared for her return; but it does nothing to satisfy the fierce hunger in his eyes, which roam across the collection of fine art and antiques on display in Sonia's sitting room. (As the Daily Express noted, Lambert evidently took 'great care with costume and design to make the series look quite faultless' in its presentation of period detail.)

Henry's attention is drawn to the 'superb' silver mask of a laughing child, mounted on the wall. The young man evidently has a taste for the finer things in life, if not yet the means to enjoy them. He talks about the history and style of pieces in Sonia's collection with an easy familiarity. The spinster is impressed – and not a little surprised – by his knowledge of the artists and their works. She asks Henry if he too is an artist but is troubled by his ambiguous reply: 'I do all sorts of things – anything bad.' Sonia feels she 'must be mad' to have allowed him into her home, and he does little to allay her fears. 'Yes. I could have cut your throat,' Henry says as he finally departs.

Henry returns – with his sickly wife and baby in tow

In fact the only crime Henry commits during his first encounter with Sonia is to steal her silver cigarette case. Nevertheless, his minor misdeed ensures their paths cross again, and this time with more unpleasant consequences for the wealthy spinster. When Henry returns the cigarette case to Sonia, several days after the theft, he claims he pawned it to buy food. Now he wants money. Henry shows her a portfolio of his dreadful paintings and asks her to buy one – at a greatly inflated price. She is angry with him and finds his opportunism distasteful; but his resolve is unshakeable. Humiliated, Sonia is compelled to hand over money for one of Henry's worthless watercolours. It is fit only, she feels, to be hung out of sight, in Nora's bedroom.

Desperate to sever ties with the sinister young man, Sonia insists she is 'not interested' in the slightest in his personal problems, but she soon becomes embroiled in them. After an unsatisfying evening at the theatre, Sonia is disturbed by a knock on the front door, accompanied by a baby's sharp cries. She finds Henry on the doorstep with his sickly wife, Ada (played with great skill by Zoë, who is pictured on this page in a publicity photo from around the time the programme was broadcast), and their infant son, who Henry has named after himself.

In the words of Walpole's story Ada is 'a thin graceful little thing'; indeed, this fragile young woman, with her drab clothes and lank hair, looks as if she barely has the strength to carry her son. Henry is determined to introduce his relatives to their new 'benefactor' and show them the luxurious house. He no doubt expects that the pitiful sight of Ada and the baby will tug on the lonely spinster's heartstrings, and he is not disappointed. Sonia feels unable to turn them away.

'Do you live here on your own? All this...'

Despite Henry's importunity, the wealthy spinster finds it impossible to harden her heart completely to the impoverished family. Walpole's story sheds light on Sonia's struggle by emphasising that she is prone to acts of 'impulsive kindness', during which her heart rules her head and clouds her judgement. Sonia's kindly nature and isolation make her an easy target for Henry's schemes. Although the spinster knows she is being taken advantage of, she seems powerless to disentangle herself from the Abbotts' affairs, whatever the cost to herself.

Henry wants his wife to admire the silver mask in Sonia's sitting room, just as he had done during his first visit; but Ada initially finds it impossible to focus on anything other than her terrible hunger. She falls on the food Sonia gives her and wraps bread in the baby's blanket for later, clearly unsure where her next meal will come from. Henry's inability – or unwillingness – to find steady employment is taking a severe toll on his family. Only after she has eaten can Ada take in her luxurious surroundings. Unlike her husband, she appears overwhelmed by them, asking Sonia incredulously, 'Do you live here on your own? All this...' Ada's voice is meek but nevertheless betrays a hint of shock and anger that the spinster keeps her fortune for herself alone.

Rumours, risks and Sonia's reputation

Persuasive and persistent, Henry increases his hold over Sonia by coercing her into hiring him as a secretary. He claims he wants to repay the spinster's kindness by working for her unpaid. Sonia observes that he writes letters in a confident hand. 'I've never lacked confidence,' he remarks, tellingly. When Henry puts his mind to something, his tremendous self-belief makes him unstoppable. Henry makes such an efficient secretary that Sonia's fears begin to fade.

'He works hard and saves me endless bother,' she says matter-of-factly to friends who express concern about his near-constant presence at her townhouse. Sonia is now the subject of gossip, as her social circle speculates about the nature of her relationship with this attractive young man. She pays little attention to the rumours – and the risk they pose to her reputation.

Sonia's suspicions are aroused again, however, when Ada visits Henry at work. Ada mutters unconvincingly that she was 'just passing' by the house when she decided to drop in. Has this visit in fact been orchestrated by her husband, and to what purpose? Sonia is troubled but, for the second time, can't bring herself to turn the frail young woman away. She finds herself allowing Ada to stay for lunch. They sit around the dining table with Henry, in awkward silence. Ada is so nervous and uncomfortable that she can't bring herself to eat anything. That afternoon, the Abbotts weigh heavily on Sonia's mind. What are their intentions towards her?

Ada's faint seals Sonia's fate

When Henry again brings his wife and baby to Sonia's home, the spinster is at her wit's end. She declares she wants nothing more to do with them and tries to pay Henry off with a paltry £5. Anxious and breathing rapidly, Ada hangs back; she can hardly bear to watch the confrontation. Seen in close-up for the first time, Ada looks grey, ill and exhausted. Sonia threatens to call the police if Henry contacts her again. 'Now go!' she screams – but at that moment Ada collapses.

Whereas Walpole's story casts doubt on the authenticity of what it calls Ada's 'determined and resolved' faint, the TV dramatisation paints a more complicated picture of events. Pale and panicked, Ada is clearly beside herself with worry at the prospect of her benefactor turning against the family. She appears genuinely unwell – at least, at first – as she lies motionless in bed at Sonia's house, the spinster having once again allowed her heart to dictate her treatment of the Abbotts. But Sonia's physician, Dr McArdle, is mystified by the young woman's condition. 'I'd say she hadn't been eating properly – but it could be anything,' he says unhelpfully.

Whether genuine or not, Ada's collapse is 'perhaps the critical moment of the whole affair', as Walpole's story emphasises. It sets in motion a chain of events that spells disaster for Sonia. Her response to the crisis seals her fate; she will never be able to rid herself of the Abbotts.

The Abbotts take root in Sonia's home

'Leave her be for a few days and she'll be all right,' Dr McArdle advises Sonia, shortly after Ada faints. Much to the rich spinster's dismay, however, the young woman is in no hurry to recover. Henry uses his wife's illness as an excuse to bring numerous uncouth relatives to the house, without its owner's permission. They fuss over the patient, ensconced in a comfortable spare bedroom. When Ada finally leaves her sickbed, more than a week after collapsing, she travels no further than an armchair in the sitting room. Meek and mute, she wears a nightdress, with a shawl around her shoulders. Is Ada struggling to regain her health or playing the invalid?

Whatever the truth about Ada's condition, one thing is certain. The longer she and her relatives remain under Sonia's roof, the more accustomed they all become to their luxurious surroundings. Horrified to find the Abbotts and their extended family taking root in her home, Sonia again confronts Henry. 'I want you to leave this house at once! Take your wife, your baby and your relatives!' she cries desperately. Henry flatly refuses, claiming Ada is too frail to be moved: 'Do you want to kill her?' Sonia falters in the face of the young man's steely determination.

Victim of 'a weak heart'

Sonia's friends desert her as a result of the vicious rumours circulating about her involvement with handsome Henry. Little do they know that the truth of the matter is far more disturbing than gossip about a supposed affair. After Nora resigns from her position, apparently deeply upset by something Henry has said to her, Sonia is left completely isolated. Cunning Henry swiftly takes possession of the ex-maid's set of keys. The wealthy spinster's household is now under his control.

Frantic and distraught, Sonia pleads with the Abbotts and their relatives to leave. 'I do not mean to be unkind, but I have my own life to consider,' she tells them in a shaky voice. Henry, Ada and their hangers-on have clearly outstayed their welcome, but they stare at Sonia in silence, unmoved by her distress. The spinster is overwhelmed; she collapses in agony, clutching her chest. As Walpole's story emphasises, poor Sonia has 'a weak heart', emotionally and physically.

She cries out for her medication – a bottle of pills, just out of her reach. Nobody comes to her aid. Henry looms over the spinster as she falls unconscious. He has won the battle of wills.

Sonia languishes as Ada becomes mistress of the house

Now it is desperately ill Sonia's turn to be put to bed, though without any of the care and attention lavished on Ada. As the spinster languishes in Nora's old room, Henry's wife makes a full recovery from her illness (imagined or otherwise). Well-nourished and well-rested for perhaps the first time in her life, Ada can now focus completely on conspiring with Henry against the luckless spinster. The young woman's strength is no longer being sapped by the fear and anxiety that accompany extreme poverty. Perhaps her husband corrupted her; perhaps she needed only to improve her health in order to become his most formidable ally.

Ada usurps Sonia as the mistress of the house, elegantly dressed, with her hair in fashionable waves. 'Miss Herries is ill, I'm afraid,' she says blandly, when turning Amy away. Henry, who has swapped his shabby suit for more stylish, expensive attire, lies to Sonia's sister in a letter, telling her the spinster is receiving the best care money can buy. The couple deceives everyone who enquires about Sonia, claiming she is not receiving visitors on the advice of Dr McArdle. Of course, he has not been consulted. Sonia is entirely at the mercy of Henry and his wife.

'You shouldn't be out of bed, Miss Herries. You're not well enough,' Ada says patronisingly, when Sonia struggles to get up, desperate to regain her independence. The spinster attempts to escape her cell, but the young woman easily overpowers her. 'You'll go to jail for this, all of you! I'll tell the police,' Sonia cries pathetically. 'But it's we who keep you alive,' Ada replies calmly. She may as well have said, 'But it is we who keep you buried alive.'

From silver mask to death mask

Sonia's life is in the Abbotts' hands. Their cruel intentions are disguised by softly spoken words and veiled threats. The young woman departs, unmoved by the spinster's plight. The Stage observed: 'As Sonia screams impotently from behind her locked bedroom door that this is her house, the camera pans down the forbidding staircase to emptiness. She is totally alone, there is no one to care what happens to her.'

Sonia's spirit is broken; her health deteriorates further. As she lies in bed, helpless, Henry forces her to sign over control of her estate to him. Poor Sonia is too weak to challenge him: she effectively signs her life away. Ada could not be more delighted as she, Henry and the others celebrate their newfound wealth. Their cheers and raucous laughter echo throughout the house.

Scheming Henry feathers his nest by selling off items from Sonia's collection of fine art and antiques, which he had once pretended to admire. One piece, however, is destined to remain with the spinster. As a final act of cruelty, Henry hangs the silver mask on dying Sonia's wall, a nightmarish reminder of the life of privilege that is lost to her forever. The mask's expression now appears cruel rather than joyful, as if mocking the spinster. Perhaps the mask is not smiling; perhaps it has been grimacing in terror, anguish and despair all along: a death mask for Sonia.


Joyce Redman ... Sonia Herries

Scott Antony ... Henry Abbott

Zoë Wanamaker ... Ada Abbott

Tara Soppet ... Nora

Joan Peart ... Amy Weston

Anthony Roye ... George Weston

John Rae ... Dr McArdle

Charles Farrell ... Mr Edwards

Margery Withers ... Mrs Edwards

Irene Peters ... Agnes Harper

Robert Lister ... Policeman


Writer: Trevor Griffiths
Director: Alastair Reid
Producer: Verity Lambert
Associate Producer: Tony McLaren
Designer: John Clements
Title Music: Denis King


Zoë remembers Joyce Redman (Sonia Herries in 'The Silver Mask'), who sadly died in May 2012, as a wonderful actress and person.

As is the case with 'The Silver Mask', unexpected visitors spell disaster for a household in Zoe's previous TV programme, 'The Eagle Has Landed' (which was also broadcast in 1973).

'The Silver Mask' was broadcast just a couple of days before Lorna and Ted, meaning that Zoë appeared twice on TV in June 1973 alone – no mean feat for an actress only a few years into her professional career.

Related links

Rex Features: 'The Silver Mask' photos

IMDb: 'The Silver Mask' programme details

BFI: 'The Silver Mask' programme details

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