My favourite Christmas things

 

From pixabay.com

 

This Christmas and New Year, my better half – Mrs Blood and Porridge – and I decided to forego our usual custom of heading back to Scotland to visit my family, mainly because we couldn’t handle another late December / early January spent in the cold, wet, windy and generally shite winter climate of the Scottish Borders.  Instead we elected to stay where we are, i.e. in southern Asia.  We’ve just spent four days at Unawatuna Beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.  I’d like to say the experience was entirely the idyllic sun-drenched experience suggested by this photograph.

 

 

Unfortunately, half the time, the area was battered by thunderstorms and Unawatuna Beach looked more like this.

 

 

In addition, the hotel we’d booked into turned out to be still under construction, workmen with whining drills, snarling saws and clattering hammers working on a new function room at the end of our corridor and more workmen plastering the walls beside the outdoor swimming pool (even while it was pissing with rain).  The place looked like something out of Carry On Abroad (1972).  But overall we had an enjoyable sojourn there.  We’re now spending Christmas Day in Colombo and plan to visit Thailand for a week-and-a-half over New Year.

 

Anyway, sitting in our Colombo apartment this Christmas Day, listening to our neighbours setting off fireworks – which is how they seem to celebrate everything in Sri Lanka – I find myself wondering what my favourite Christmas things are, in terms of books, films, TV, music and art.  Here’s what comes to mind.

 

© Vintage

 

Books.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) doesn’t do much for me these days, probably because I’m overly familiar with its plot and characters – who isn’t?  But a few months ago, I finally got around to reading Susan Hill’s enjoyable Gothic pastiche The Woman in Black (1983).  Hitherto knowing it only by its 2012 movie adaptation, I was surprised to discover The Woman in Black qualifies as a Christmas story.  At least, it uses the Victorian custom of telling ghost stories at Christmas-time as a framing device.  It’s during such a seasonal storytelling session that the middle-aged narrator gets unwillingly transported back to his youth and he begins to recall the terrifying experiences he had as a young man at Eel Marsh House.

 

Films.  A little while ago I wrote about the grim 1971 Australian movie Wake in Fright.  I realised it could be described as a Christmas movie, because its story of debauchery and squalor takes place during the festive season – though with the sweltering, fly-ridden Outback providing a background to the Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  In fact, if you fancy an Antipodean anti-Christmas double bill, you should watch Wake in Fright back-to-back with 2005’s Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition, whose climax has Ray Winstone and Emily Watson sitting down to a genteel English Christmas dinner in the heat and dust of the 19th century Outback while a pair of crazed bushrangers gallop towards their house intent on rape and murder.

 

© First Look Pictures

 

For more properly seasonal cinematic fare, though, I guess you can’t go wrong with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) or the Finnish monster-Santa epic Rare Exports (2010).  And I have a soft spot for 1982’s beautifully animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ 1978 picture-book The Snowman.  I particularly like the version of it that has a prologue featuring David Bowie, who tells the story as a flashback and makes out this happened to him as a child.  Thus, the man who was Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke also flew with a snowman to the North Pole and met Santa Claus when he was a wee boy.  Wow, that David Bowie really lived a life!

 

© BBC

 

Television.  To me, Christmas TV means two things – comedy and (again) ghost stories.  Any time I’m in the UK during the festive season it isn’t difficult to track down on a Freeview channel one of the following comedic classics.  First, the 1974 Steptoe and Son Christmas special in which Harold tries to persuade his decrepit dad Albert not to spend Christmas at home in the rag-and-bone yard for once and spend it on holiday abroad instead.  This episode is poignant because it’s one of the few where Harold actually enjoys a victory and it was also the last Steptoe episode ever broadcast.  Second, the 1975 Christmas edition of Porridge where Fletcher, Gobber and co. form a Christmas carol-singing choir to hide the noise of an escape tunnel being dug out of Slade Prison.  And third, the 1996 Father Ted special where Ted and Father Dougal’s Christmas shopping takes an unexpected turn when they get trapped inside ‘the largest lingerie section in Ireland’.  I find it sad, though, that I haven’t massively enjoyed any festive TV comedy made in the last 20-odd years.  (Incidentally, if you say you like the Mr Bean episode where he ends up with a giant Christmas turkey stuck over his head, you don’t deserve to live.)

 

© BBC

 

As I mentioned earlier, Christmas was traditionally a time for telling ghost stories.  The BBC’s supernatural dramas that were broadcast every Yuletide during the 1970s under the title of A Ghost Story for Christmas now seem deeply festive – even though the stories themselves didn’t have Christmas-time settings.  (That said, most of them were based on works by M.R. James, who liked reading his latest tales to his friends at King’s College, Cambridge, “at the season of Christmas”.)  1971’s The Stalls of Barchester (based on a James story) and 1976’s The Signalman (based on a Dickens one) are probably the most memorable; 1977’s Stigma, set in the present day and using an original script by Clive Exton, is the subtlest and saddest; and 1975’s The Ash Tree, based on another James story, is the freakiest, ending with a pack of little spider-things with human faces scuttling up the branches of the titular tree to a bedroom window.  All the episodes are currently up on Youtube.

 

© Charlemagne Productions Ltd

 

Music.  Christmas songs are generally dreadful – apart from the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York and Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis – and the songs that get to the Christmas number-one spot in the UK are generally worse than dreadful, especially now that they’re usually sung by the latest non-entity to have rolled off the Simon Cowell Conveyor Belt of Karaoke.  But for an enjoyably berserk Christmas listening experience, you can’t beat the heavy metal versions of Christmas songs like Silent Night and Jingle Bells recorded in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by the late, legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee, star of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars movies and many horror ones.  The combination of the nonagenarian Lee’s still-booming operatic voice, twiddly power-metal guitars and Christmas – what’s not to love?

 

Art.  In the last few years English-speaking culture has become aware of the goat-horned, curly-tongued Krampus, the demonic figure of Germanic and Slavic folklore who acts as an anti-Santa Claus and goes around at Christmas punishing children who’ve been naughty.  Among other things, there’s been a Hollywood movie made about him, 2015’s Krampus, and he turned up in a 2016 festive episode of the BBC anthology series Inside No 9.  Only recently did I discover that mainland Europe has had a long tradition of exchanging Krampuskarten, greeting cards featuring the Krampus.  These include some bawdy ones where the saucy old festive demon is seen cavorting with buxom young ladies.  Here’s a few examples – charming in their visual designs and quaintly Roald Dahl-esque in their sentiments.

 

From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com

From krazywolf.com

 

So Merry Christmas – I trust Santa Claus has been good to you.  Or if you’ve misbehaved, the Krampus has been bad to you.

 

Scary telly – ten favourites

 

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.

 

(c) BBC

 

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.

 

Scary British television

 

From goodreads.com

 

Something I noticed about the recent festive season was the amount of nostalgia expressed in the British media for the spooky side of Christmas.  A number of commentators wrote fondly about the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas-time that the Victorians and Edwardians seemed so fond of.  There was also a lot of nostalgic coverage given to the TV dramas that the BBC used to broadcast during the 1970s under the umbrella title of A Ghost Story for Christmas – one drama would be shown around December 25th each year and most of them were based on works by the doyen of British Victorian / Edwardian ghost-story writers, M.R. James.  Here are links to a few such articles about Britain’s festive ghost-story tradition that have appeared in the press over the past weeks:

 

http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/12/come-all-ye-fearful

http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/0/25496655

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/christmas/10535291/Why-ghost-stories-evoke-the-Christmas-spirit.html

 

In fact, in recent years, the reputation of the old A Ghost Story for Christmas series has grown to the point where the BBC has tried its hand at making new instalments of it.  Accordingly, the Christmases of 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2013 have seen more TV adaptations of M.R. James stories.  The most recent one was a version of James’s The Tractate Middoth, which featured an attractively veteran cast including Eleanor Bron, Louise Jameson, Una Stubbs and Roy Barraclough and was written and directed by The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss.  These days, Gatiss definitely is the BBC’s go-to man for anything relating to horror, the supernatural and the occult.

 

I watched The Tractate Middoth on the evening of Christmas Day 2013.  While I didn’t think it was perfect – I felt Gatiss showed a shade too much of the supernatural horror that was skulking around the university libraries and leafy country lanes where the story took place, and he could have left a shade more to the viewers’ imaginations – he at least didn’t go completely over the top and surrender to the sort of heavy-handed pyrotechnics and special effects that ruin too many horror films these days.  He managed to create a comfortable, tweedy, bookish atmosphere that I think the cerebral James would have approved of and it was, in my opinion, a credible effort overall.  (Immediately after the story was broadcast on BBC2, Gatiss presented a documentary about the life of M.R. James himself.  You really are spoiling us, Mark.)

 

Anyway, The Tractate Middoth and the Ghost Story for Christmas series have got me thinking about the topic of scary stuff on British television generally.  During the 1970s and early 1980s, when I was a youngster, British TV seemed to be infested with horror and ghost series: not just A Ghost Story for Christmas, but also Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries, Thriller (not the old American series but a British one supervised by the prolific writer Brian Clemens), Beasts, Supernatural, Leap in the Dark, Sapphire and Steel, The Hammer House of Horror, The Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense and Tales of the Unexpected, as well as one-offs like the 1977 BBC adaptation of Dracula with Louis Jourdan.  Nor was this fad confined to adult TV schedules.  There were creepy items shown on children’s schedules too, including the anthology series Shadows and the seven-part drama Children of the Stones, which a recent documentary on Radio 4 (presented by comedian Stewart Lee) described as “the scariest programme ever made for children.”

 

Then, a little way into the 1980s, this genre simply seemed to vanish from British television.  I suspect that one reason for this was the ‘video nasties’ hysteria that gripped the media at the time, when Tory politicians, tabloid journalists and Mrs Mary Whitehouse would have you believe that horror films like Zombie Flesh-Eaters and The Evil Dead were corrupting the nation’s impressionable youth and turning them into cannibalistic ghouls and knife wielding psychopaths.  Accordingly, TV executives and programme makers may have shied away from subject matter that was macabre and therefore might be deemed ‘distasteful’.

 

But I’m sure there were other reasons too.  In the yuppie-fied, Thatcherite world of 1980s Britain, many people were too hard-headedly materialistic to take stories about ghosts and monsters seriously any more.  Meanwhile, in the United States, the massive success of Stephen King, first with his novels and then with the many film-versions of those novels – which was followed by a deluge of literary and cinematic imitators – seems to have convinced people that the macabre and the gothic were things best left to the Americans.  After all, there’d never been traditions of these in Britain.  Well, apart from M.R. James.  And Sir Walter Scott, Mathew Lewis, James Hogg, Anne Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Machen, E.F. Benson, W.W. Jacobs, May Sinclair, Algernon Blackwood, Dennis Wheatley, Robert Aickman, Angela Carter and Ramsay Campbell.  And The Pan Book of Horror Stories series.  And Hammer Films.  And…

 

It says a lot for how unused to horror and ghost material British TV audiences became during the 1980s that in 1992, when the BBC finally commissioned a script from Stephen Volk and mounted a one-off special called Ghostwatch – a pastiche live documentary about a TV crew investigating a ‘real-life’ haunting in a suburban home – there was a national outcry.  Some people found it too scary.  Some people hadn’t even realised that what they were watching was a drama and believed it was actually happening.

 

(c) BBC

 

When horror returned to favour on British TV in the 1990s, it came with the success of American shows like The X-Files – which, when it wasn’t bogged down with torturous story-arcs about UFO conspiracies, had Mulder and Scully investigating all manner of spooky paranormal phenomena – and then Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  These led to further American series – Charmed, Supernatural, True Blood, The Walking Dead – and even some new British ones such as Strange, Apparitions, Demons and, most popularly, Being Human.

 

I’ve enjoyed several of these modern shows – I was, for a while, severely addicted to Buffy – but for me they don’t have the magic of their 1970s predecessors.  Some of them have their good points but, crucially, I don’t find them scary.  Why not?

 

Perhaps it’s because of the jokey knowingness that pervades most of them, pitched as they are at a younger audience who see themselves as being too cool and sophisticated to take this horror stuff seriously.  Or perhaps it’s merely because of the spell that nostalgia weaves over people – things are usually not as good as you remember them to be, and if I sat and down and watched some of those old 1970s shows now I might find them painfully dated, creaky and unfrightening.

 

But I do think that those horror / ghost series of yore had one great advantage over their modern equivalents.  With the exception of Sapphire and Steel (which had the imperturbable David McCallum and the impeccable Joanna Lumley as a mysterious pair of investigators who turn up at the scenes of various supernatural happenings), they were all anthology shows.  Each episode had a self-contained story with a self-contained cast of characters and as a result they were both suspenseful and believable – two traits that I feel are essential if a story is to be frightening.

 

In an anthology show you don’t know what to expect.  Because the characters are around for one episode only, you don’t know if they are going to survive to the end.  Thus, the format has an unpredictability that heightens the suspense.  However, the new shows, British and American, are conventional serials.  They feature regular casts, having different adventures in each episode whilst also being part of a larger, continuing storyline.  This enhances the viewers’ identification with and loyalty to the shows and gives them a brand recognition that helps market them.  But it also gives viewers a comforting sense of continuity and predictability when they watch them, which reduces the level of suspense.  Regular characters may be occasionally killed off – The Walking Dead is particularly notorious for the body-count among its regulars – but the general feeling of safeness, which I think is anathema to a properly scary story, is much higher than it is in an anthology series.

 

The other problem with a horror or supernatural series featuring a regular set of characters is that believability quickly goes out of the window – and to me, if you can’t believe in a scary story (at least for as long as you are reading or watching it), it isn’t actually scary.  In a well-constructed tale the reader can keep scepticism at bay and accept that a character, say, saw a ghost on one occasion.  But if the writer then pens further tales where the same character has more supernatural experiences on further occasions – encountering vampires, werewolves, etc. – the suspension of disbelief becomes impossible.  The writer has gone against all laws of possibility and the stories have lost all credibility.  Whatever the quality of The X-Files, Buffy, Being Human, etc., I’m afraid this problem makes them about as believable to me, and as scary to me, as Scooby Doo – a show whose formula their formulas unwittingly resemble.  This issue of believability, of course, doesn’t apply to an anthology series where every episode is autonomous, unconnected with what has gone before and what will come after.

 

In my next post, I’ll write a little more about the golden age of scary programmes on British TV, as I see it – and I’ll select my highlights from that era.

 

From wikipedia.org