Saturday, 19 December 2015

Spooky TV Classics

Over at the British Film Institute, they are rather keen on spooky things. They've drawn up a list of 10 Classics of British TV Horror, and it makes for an interesting read. I've seen most, but not all, of the dramas in question, and what strikes me is how diverse and interesting they are. And yet somehow they are all very distinctly British, perhaps because most have a darkly humorous take on fear, mystery, and general weirdness (hence the inclusion of The League of Gentlemen's 2000 Christmas Special). Anyway, check out the BFI list. Here are some of my favourites from it.


Nigel Kneale has two 'hits' on the list, and both are technically science fiction. Yet 'The Stone Tape' was rightly billed by the BBC as a ghost story for Christmas back in 1972, as the entire setup is pure Gothic. A vulnerable young woman goes to an old country house, where she is surrounded by men, all pursuing their own agendas, and a strange force becomes focused upon her. What Kneale brings to it is the post-Sixties British fixation on what was termed the white heat of a technological revolution. Sciencce, greed, lust, deceit, and terrible tragedy. 'The Stone Tape' has aged, and rather badly in some ways, but the core of it is still dark and powerful. It's hardly a secret that women are still treated this way, in science and elsewhere.

Then there's 'During Barty's Party', a stand-alone episode of Kneale's 1976 ITV series Beasts. This is another tale of modern, successful people confronted by a new variation on an ancient menace - the wild beast lurking in the shadows. The twist is that the not-especially-likeable couple in question only slowly come to realise that their apparently secure world - good job in the City, nice little place in the country - can fall apart in a matter of minutes. Beasts is notable that, despite its title, rarely featured actual animals due to the dearth of budget in the mid-Seventies, but Kneale  turns this to his advantage as it becomes apparent to his characters that a rather surreal migration of killer creatures is happening under their floorboards. Suburban middle-class Gothic, this, and never really bettered.

Beasts - 'During Barty's Party' (1976)
On the plus side, you won't have to return their lawnmower

Mystery and Imagination (1966-70), produced by ABC/Thames Television

Much less well-known but deserving of more attention is the black-and-white Sixties series Mystery and Imagination. This features in the BFI list thanks to 'Dracula', a satisfying adaptation starring Denholm Elliott as the eponymous Count. Elliott seems a rather odd choice, at first, as he made a career from being a slightly louche and very definitely posh Brit. But it works - he even looks good in Swinging London Shades. Sadly, many eps of this series were lost, but the ones that survived are all worth a watch, particularly 'Sweeney Todd' starring Freddie Jones. While the show sometimes suffers from its studio-bound nature, at its best it is indeed classic TV.

Mystery and Imagination - 'Dracula' (1968)
From Transylvania, via Carnaby Street

Ultraviolet (Channel 4, 1998)

If you're looking for a (admittedly small) box set that offers a satisfying longer watch you could do worse than Ultraviolet. This mini-series also tackles vampirism, but its part of the show's conspiracy-driven rationale that the word is never used. Instead an alert from the vamp-hunting squad is a 'Code Five' - and what is the Roman numeral for 5, eh?

'So, is this set ripped off of old time Doctor Who?' 'Button it, Idris, you brooding maverick!'

Created by Joe Ahearne and starring Jack Davenport and Susannah Harker (interesting surname), the show begins when Davenport's London cop becomes aware of the existence of 'leeches' following the disappearance of someone close to him. He ends up joining a secret unit headed by a renegade priest (Philip Quast). And yes, that bloke on the left above is Idris Elba - he plays a tough ex-squaddie. After the initial setup things get very interesting, as Ahearne explores some seldom-considered issues that must affect the undead. It's strong stuff, at times, but like most fans I regret that Ahearne only gave us six episodes. (Thought there's a new American version, which I haven't seen.)

My Two Penn'orth

Other items on the BFI list include 'Lost Hearts', one of the excellent M.R. James adaptations of the Seventies created by Lawrence Gordon Clark. Overall, it's a good list, but of course there are any number of dramas that might have made the cut. A great many shows were wiped in the early days to re-use videotapes - amazing to think that some splendid drama was shown once, and that was it. Nobody imagined it might be wanted again. Imagine if, say, The Twilight Zone had suffered such a fate. Shudders all round.

Falling through the cracks is another problem, especially when a show isn't really a drama but instead takes up the old tradition of ghost story readings at Christmas. This has been done many times, and there are some good examples available now. If you have the BFI's set of Ghost Stories for Christmas you will of course get the dramas - from Jonathan Miller's 'Whistle and I'll Come to You' onward. But the DVD extras include some excellent readings of M.R. James stories by Robert Powell, Michael Bryant, and Christopher Lee. The first two sets of readings date from the Eighties, with the Bryants aimed at younger viewers (and therefore more drastically edited), while the Lees came later and are rather more lavish, but they all stand up well.

It's arguable that such readings belong on radio, but there's something to be said for 'radio with pictures', as the setting - usually the scholar's study, or country house library - plus the actor's expression, use of props and so forth do make a difference. Anyway, here's one to give you a flavour. And note how well Robert Powell delivers a story that moves effortlessly from schoolboy comedy to outright folk horror.


knobgobbler said...

Hmmm... no love for Ghostwatch?

valdemar said...

Good point. Not in the BFI list, and I must admit I didn't think of it. It is rightly considered a classic, though.

Long List for Best Horror #14

The redoubtable New York editor Ellen Datlow has published her (very) long list of stories under consideration for her next anthology. The ...