Don't you ever get the feeling that life's too easy thanks to all these technological innovations and advancements?
Once upon a time, if an important message needed to be sent, a business or company would get on the blower to a taxi or motorcyclist to deliver a typewritten document as fast as possible. If there was a delay on the train, then the other half would have to use the power of the mind to work out when his or her partner was coming home. And this was in the days when Derren Brown was still learning to move toy building blocks with mental force.
And believe it or not, once upon a time, audiences used to go and see films without people talking. The silent films were especially successful when it came to comedy. Comedy genii like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin would make the best use of facial expressions and slapstick situations to leave the audiences wanting more.
Even when the talkies had been introduced, there was still a market for silent movies. When I was growing up, I remember the BBC used to repeat a series of compilations featuring a guy called Harold Lloyd. Another silent film genius, Lloyd was famous for “a pair of glasses and a smile” which could be heard in that infectious title song which went something like “Hooray for Harold Lloyd! Duh da duh da duh da duh daaaahh daaaahh!” He was also famous for hiding in coats and in appearing in iconic scenes such as the one in which he was left dangling off a clock face at the top of a very tall building. Brilliant stuff which proves that sometimes silence is golden.
Given that TV tends to look backwards rather than forwards these days, the power of nostalgia is enough to hint that the age of silent films and telly could make a comeback. Silence would prove particularly useful in any programme starring Keith Lemon.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer proved that it could be done with an episode called Hush. What's more, it's gone down as one of the show's all time classics, and revisiting it again, it's hard to disagree with this sentiment.
To be frank, Hush's creepy, other-worldly genius couldn't have arrived sooner. The fourth season of Buffy has been treading water for the past few weeks with episodes that could be classed as “Must try harder”. Good episodes, enjoyable moments, but nothing that screams classic out at you.
What Hush does is to take a simple idea and turn it into something that's bold and unique. Just under three quarters of the episode passes without any dialogue. It's a risky gambit, but thanks to the brilliant execution, it's a gamble that pays off. Everything about this episode works from the dark fairytale visuals through to the silent comedy. Hush has also earned a reputation for being one of the creepiest Buffy episodes, and thanks to its central premise and monster race, it's a reputation that's well deserved.
The episode revolves around a small group of weirdos known as The Gentlemen. The Gentlemen have come to Sunnydale to steal everyone's voices, which means they can't scream when their hearts are cut out. Once The Gentlemen have enough collected hearts, chaos, wackiness, etc ensues.
A nightmarish concept in itself, but what adds to the terror is the realisation of The Gentlemen. Leering skeletal cadavers in suits float calmly towards their victims with unhurried precision. There's no need for speed or urgency because no one can scream or shout for help. Their fixed grimace grins are enough to send the kids running away screaming from the TV, but for the grown ups there's even a bit of ironic humour to be had with the way in which The Gentlemen go about their business with such good-natured bonhomie. Having scooped the heart out of one luckless student, a Gentleman is loath to receive all the applause from his peers. He might as well have won the award for Salesman of the Year, the way he gushes and basks in the appreciation.
Their macabre appearance and casual murderous tendencies add up to a chilling and unforgettable race of monsters seen in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Even the additional things like their strait-jacketed minions work to perfection. Joss Whedon films them in such a way to create maximum shock value. The scene in which Olivia jumps out of her skin at a passing Gentleman or when a college dorm door is opened to reveal two of the blighters, it's instant gulp time.
One of my favourite things about Hush is the way in which the central crisis unfolds. At the start of the second act, we see Buffy and Willow waking up from a deep sleep. Life carries on in normal fashion. Teeth are brushed. Mouths open to yawn. No one really talks much in the morning, so there's no reason to think that anything's badly wrong. And then after Buffy mimes a good morning to Willow, she gulps and tries again but to no avail. The dread slowly mounts like a gradual crescendo – Buffy thinks she's lost her voice. Willow thinks she's gone deaf. All the students have the same problem.
As does everyone in Sunnydale. Xander reacts in panic and thinks it's Spike's fault (who amusingly responds with a two finger salute). It's all topped off by a distinctive Christophe Beck score which underlines the slowly mounting horrified reaction to the crisis.
In fact, Beck is one of the key ingredients to Hush's success. With barely any dialogue in the last three acts, it's left to Beck to emphasise the action unfolding on the screen. He does a magnificent job, adding a dreamlike theme for the Gentlemen (to nicely contrast with their vicious heart robbing), eerie reaction build-ups (such as the aforementioned suite for the opening of the second act) and plenty of gung-ho action music for the concluding battle against the Gentlemen in the tower. Hush is very much Beck's piece-de-resistance for Buffy, and again reinforces how much he'll be missed after he departs at the end of the season.
On a visual level, Whedon delivers with this episode. It's crammed full of memorable and well-devised set-pieces such as the creepy dream intro, the relentless attacks of the Gentlemen in the university campus corridors and of course, the scene in which Giles explains what's going on with the aid of one of those old projector gizmos you used to get in school and a bit of Danse Macabre on the stereo (neatly recalling Anthony Head's lone shot as Adam Klaus in Jonathan Creek in 1997).
It's magnificently crafted, bursting at the seams with well reasoned exposition, subtle characterisation and lots of humour (whether it's Buffy's disgust at Giles' less than flattering sketch of her or Xander and Willow misreading Buffy's staking mime). The characterisation is completely on the ball – despite the lack of dialogue. Giles is all pompous and Watcherish with his headmaster lecture and projector. Willow's full of answers (such as her mime of a CD to deliver a killing shriek to the Gentlemen). Xander's still got sex on the brain (he mistakes hearts for boobs) while Anya typically sits back and enjoys the show with a tub of popcorn.
Underneath all this creepy malarkey and silent hi-jinks is a well-observed take on what it means to communicate. As cardboard-haired battleaxe Professor Walsh astutely points out, communication and language aren't necessarily the same thing. We may talk, but we don't always communicate what we feel – instead making do with filling silent spaces with noise. It's a classic problem, and it's one that's marring the lives of Buffy and her friends. Anya's miffed that she thinks that Xander doesn't value her enough. She thinks that Xander's just in it for the sex – the ironic proof is that Xander lamps Spike after he thinks that he's just attacked a sleeping Anya. Sometimes actions really do speak louder than words.
Another example comes at one of Willow's witchy gatherings. Every time the other Wiccans open their mouths, a load of garbage pours forth, whether it's on trivial nonsense such as bake sales or newsletters. None of the other Wiccans actually want to discuss genuine witchy doings apart from Willow and a shy, stammering girl called Tara Maclay. Tara's essentially Willow from three seasons ago – lacking in confidence and social skills but full of shrewd intelligence. Perhaps that's why Willow makes friends with Tara so quickly. She can recognise a kindred spirit when she sees one, and after the two use the power of genuine magic to protect themselves from the Gentlemen (complete with a drinks dispenser), it's another great example of actual communication without words. Already, a notable storyline is being cooked up which will take Willow on a brand new path, and it'll be interesting to see where this plot goes from here.
Perhaps the most notable lack of communication is between Sunnydale's new golden couple, Buffy and Riley. Having enjoyed a picnic, sandwiches and ants, Buffy is clearly thinking that curtain cut Riley could have potential. The downside of this is that neither can tell each other their real secret. Riley's working for The Initiative while Buffy's the Slayer – but neither lets on to these small details for fear of rejection or the wrong reaction. Again, it's only when they meet in the tower while doing battle with the Gentlemen that the secret's out. A facial expression is as good as a verbal “Huh?” and that's what concludes the third act of Hush. The great pay-off is that neither can initially pluck up the courage to discuss the matter once their voices have been restored. It'll take until the next episode for any kind of dialogue to be mustered.
There's nothing to criticise in Hush. Every small detail works from the sheer terror of the luckless student to the slow motion lemon curd head explosions of the Gentlemen. It's the ultimate nightmarish fairy tale and is realised with consummate ease by the whole team. Hush stands as one of the most gripping, challenging and unique episodes not just of Buffy but of any TV programme. It's received rightful applause from awards through to critical acclaim.
And quite right too. Hush is a brave experiment that succeeds and gives the fourth season a much needed boost. One of the best Buffy The Vampire Slayer episodes ever made, and if you haven't yet seen it, go and give it a try. It's quietly brilliant.