As promised in my previous blog-entry, here are my ten favourite memories of the golden age of scary British TV – back in the 1970s and early 1980s, a period when UK programme-makers seemed to have no compunctions about frightening audiences.
Journey to the Unknown (1969 – Matakitas is Coming)
At the end of the 1960s, Hammer Films – Britain’s premier studio specialising in horror films – tried its hand at television. The resulting series, an anthology one called Journey to the Unknown, differed from the studio’s usual output in that it eschewed gothic costume-dramas like their Dracula and Frankenstein movies and placed its stories in contemporary settings. The show was short-lived and variable in quality but, when it was repeated on late-night TV during the 1970s, it impressed me with this instalment about a woman (played by Psycho’s Vera Miles) doing research in an old labyrinthine library about a serial killer who operated during the 1920s. As night falls, she inadvertently gets locked inside the library and, as she tries to escape, she discovers that, somehow, the city outside has shifted four decades back in time to the 1920s. And worse, she isn’t actually alone inside the library…
Journey to the Unknown also sticks in my mind because of its opening credits sequence, whose images were set in a deserted, night-time fairground and accompanied by a haunting, whistled theme-tune composed by Harry Robinson.
The Stone Tape (1972)
The output of Manx writer Nigel Kneale could easily provide material for a top ten of scary TV moments in itself, from his Quatermass serials in the 1950s through to the adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black that he did for ITV in 1989 (two decades before Hammer Films got their hands on the property). The Stone Tape is perhaps his most unnerving work. An example of Kneale’s fondness for blending science-fiction elements with the supernatural, it’s the story of a team of scientists with hi-tech monitoring equipment investigating an old, supposedly haunted house that has the psychic memory of some hideous, malevolent thing imprinted in its stonework. This one-off play is in fact an early exploration of the ‘residual haunting’ theory – that ghosts are echoes or recordings of past events somehow stored in their physical surroundings – and so influential was it that the theory is now sometimes called the ‘Stone Tape theory’. The play was directed by Peter Sasdy, who was responsible for several of Hammer’s better later horror films, and among its cast was the distinguished Scottish actor Iain Cuthbertson, who will appear again in this list.
Doctor Who (1976 – The Seeds of Doom)
There are two things that Doctor Who has always done well – mass killing and body horror. The Tom Baker-era story The Seeds of Doom – which is about alien seed-pods that germinate, infect human beings and transform them into grotesque, meat-eating plant-monsters – has both things in spades. One pod becomes the possession of an insane millionaire plant-lover called Harrison Chase – played by the underrated British character actor Tony Beckley – and he gets it to germinate, using one of his own employees, a luckless botanist called Arnold Keeler, as bait. Episode 4 of this serial, wherein Chase chains the slowly-transforming Keeler to a bed, ignoring his pleas for help and trying to speed up the metamorphosis by feeding him pieces of raw meat, was the stuff of nightmares when I was 11.
A Ghost Story for Christmas (1976 – The Signalman)
Unlike other instalments of A Ghost Story for Christmas, this was based not on a story by M.R. James but on one by Charles Dickens and it is perhaps the fondest-remembered of the lot. Dripping with oppressive atmosphere – most of the action is set in a remote, lonely signal-box, located at the bottom of a deep cutting and before the mouth of a tunnel – it features Denholm Elliot as a harassed signalman, convinced that (a) he occasionally sees a spectral figure wailing and gesticulating in front of the tunnel and (b) whenever that figure appears, it is the harbinger of a deadly accident about to happen on the line. Particularly spooky is the ghostly vibration that emanates from the signal-box’s bell, as a forewarning that the ghost is about to manifest. The script was by Andrew Davies, who later become British television’s leading adaptor of classic literature. And Denholm Elliot ended up doing a lot of this stuff.
Beasts (1976 – After Barty’s Party)
By the mid-1970s Nigel Kneale had become disillusioned with the BBC and turned to rival channel ITV, for whom he would pen the final Quatermass serial in 1980 and The Woman in Black in 1989. Before those, however, came a short anthology series called Beasts in 1976. No doubt the ITV programmers expected an old-fashioned horror show that was packed with monsters – but what they got from Kneale was entirely different, a series of plays called Beasts that paradoxically didn’t contain any beasts (or at least, didn’t show them). Kneale described the episode After Barty’s Party, about a middle-class couple whose home is invaded by a swarm of noisy, hungry but never-seen rats, as an attempt to remake Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds “without the birds”. Its low-key, leave-everything-to-the-imagination approach, with the rats represented only by sound effects, didn’t exactly scare me as a youngster but it certainly unsettled me. And it has stuck in my head ever since.
Supernatural (1977 – Countess Iliona / The Werewolf Reunion)
From its foreboding church-organ music, to the images of stone gargoyles that adorned its credits sequence, to its premise – people try to gain membership of a decadent Victorian society called the Club of the Damned by telling them stories based on their terrifying real-life experiences – to the fruity acting by guest stars such as Jeremy Brett and Denholm Elliot (again), Supernatural was as gothic a show as you could ever expect to get on TV. Slow-moving, extremely stagey and resolutely keeping most of its horrors off-screen and in the viewers’ imagination, it’s the sort of show that would never be made today. Indeed, I don’t think it’s been repeated since the 1970s.
The Supernatural story that scared me most when I was a kid was the two-parter Countess Iliona / The Werewolf Reunion. This stars Billie Whitelaw (then wife of the show’s writer Robert Mueller) as a woman who during her youth was used and abused by a series of powerful men and eventually, to spare them embarrassment, ‘married off’ to a brutal aristocrat living in a remote mountain castle. After the aristocrat dies mysteriously, she invites those former beaus who’d mistreated her – played by Edward Hardwicke, John Fraser, Charles Kay and the great Ian Hendry – out to her castle. What they don’t know is that the aristocratic husband didn’t really die, but got infected with something that leaves him hairy and bloodthirsty when there’s a full moon. And his wife now plans to use him, like a deadly attack dog, to right a few wrongs. We never see the werewolf or the havoc it wreaks but the final scene, where the shadow of something advances on the final, quaking victim, is chillingly effective.
Children of the Stones (1977)
It wasn’t just the adult TV schedules that were awash with scares during the 1970s. BBC and ITV programmers also crammed them into the children’s schedules as well, with shows like Sky and The Changes – both of which were ostensibly science fiction, but being a sensitive child I found them supremely creepy – and the anthology show Shadows. But The Children of the Stones is regarded as the scariest British kids’ show of the lot. It’s fashionable now to describe it as a children’s version of The Wicker Man, but with a story incorporating a megalithic stone circle, a druidic cult of brainwashed villagers, ‘time rifts’ and an attempt to harness the power of a black hole, it was rather trippier than Peter Schaffer’s celebrated horror movie. People remember it for its spooky atmosphere, its distinguished cast (Gareth Thomas, the ubiquitous Iain Cuthbertson and the wonderful Freddie Jones) and, most of all, its music, which involved weirdly chanting voices swirling in and out of audibility. In fact, so disturbing was that music that I’m sure the show had given many kids nightmares even before they’d finished watching its opening credits.
Tales of the Unexpected (1980 – Royal Jelly)
Tales of the Unexpected, which for its first couple of seasons drew its stories from the works of Roald Dahl, was the most famous anthology series of the time, although I wasn’t a big fan of it. Too often I found it stagy and cheap-looking. Its budget seemed to be mostly spent on its casts, which were genuinely impressive, ranging from big British names like Michael Hordern, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, John Mills, Derek Jacobi, Robert Morley, Anthony Quayle, Anna Massey and Denholm Elliot (him again) to big international ones like Joseph Cotton, Rod Taylor, Eli Wallach, Telly Savalas, Jennifer Connelly, George Peppard, Brad Dourif, Sondra Locke and Frank Sinatra – that’s Frank Sinatra Junior, admittedly.
However, the episode Royal Jelly, based on the Dahl short story of the same name, was memorably freaky, thanks largely to a performance by Timothy West as an aging beekeeper who consumes vast quantities of royal jelly in order to make himself virile and able to impregnate his young wife (played by Susan George). It has the unedifying side-effect of turning West into a hairy human bee who goes ‘Bzzz-hzzz-hzzz!’ whilst chuckling about how clever he’s been.
The Hammer House of Horror (1980 – The House that Bled to Death)
At the beginning of the 1980s, with the British film industry all but extinct, Hammer Films turned its attention to television again and has a second go at mounting a horror anthology series. The result, The Hammer House of Horror, was as variable as its predecessor, Journey to the Unknown, but the best episodes have lingered in people’s memories ever since. (The series started off being sexually and bloodily explicit by TV standards of the time, but the producers toned the sex and violence down when they realised that a good part of the audience they were attracting was made up of children. It didn’t occur to them that the sex and bloodshed was probably why so many kids were tuning in.) And Denholm Elliot – yes! – appeared in one of the stories.
(c) Hammer Films
The episode The House that Bled to Death was inspired by the allegedly true-life, much-disputed events of the Amityville haunting in the USA. It has a young family moving into a house that was the scene of a gruesome murder and engineering a series of fake supernatural happenings to make it look like the house is haunted. Then, colluding with their estate agent, they become millionaires by publishing a bestselling book about their experiences – though things don’t go quite as they’d planned. A scene where a pipe bursts in a living-room ceiling and, instead of spewing water, spews blood down onto a group of children enjoying a birthday party provided The Hammer House of Horror with its most notorious moment.
The Nightmare Man (1981)
The four-part serial The Nightmare Man was a collaboration between Robert Holmes and Douglas Camfield, who these days are regarded as the greatest writer and director respectively to have worked on the original series of Doctor Who. Based on a novel by David Wiltshire, it was set on a Scottish island where locals and tourists are gorily falling victim to a mysterious thing and it had a wonderful cast – James Warwick, Celia Imre, Tom Watson, Maurice Roeves and James Cosmo. However, it was cheap (it was actually filmed in Cornwall, not in Scotland at all) and I suspect that if I saw it now it would look very dated. Even at the time, the final episode with its denouement about what was really happening, involving a Cold War plot and a malfunctioning cyborg, struck me as a big anti-climax. But for me in my impressionable youth, during those earlier episodes where animalistic sound effects and Camfield’s subjective camera represent the monster as it stalks unseen through swirling island fog, the show was perfect.
As I said previously, the British TV ghost-and-horror craze was over by the early 1980s. Suddenly, this sort of show stopped being made. Maybe it was a coincidence, but the disappearance of the genre from British screens coincided with a broadcast of a TV play that, although it wasn’t about the supernatural or the conventionally macabre, managed to be the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen on television. 1984’s Threads, written by Barry Hines (of Kes fame) and directed by Mick Jackson, shows what happens in Sheffield when nuclear war breaks out between the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. A nuclear strike on the city and its immediate aftermath are depicted with a series of unforgettable images – a woman wetting herself on a street when she sees a mushroom cloud rising above the rooftops, milk bottles melting on a doorstep, a charred cyclist on a blackened bicycle entangled in the branches of a burning bush, a gagged patient screaming mutely on a table in an anaesthetic-free hospital while surgeons saw off his leg, blood running down that hospital’s steps – and Hines and Jackson don’t flinch either in showing what comes later, with the advent of a nuclear winter and Britain’s descent into dystopian hell.
After the very credible horrors that were presented by Threads, I’m afraid, no amount of TV ghosts or monsters were ever going to frighten me in the same way again. So maybe it was just as well that the golden age of scary British television ended there.