No doubt there will be many readers who are unfamiliar with the insular world of television fandom, so I thought it wise to first raise the question:
What Qualifies As Television Horror?
We could say that anything scary on the telly would count as television horror. That definition however would end up including Boomph with Becker so we’ll have to narrow it down. On a serious point, if we only include television series, serials and one-off plays that use only classic "gothic horror" trappings, we lose SF tinged productions like The Stone Tape. This also gives us problems with "crossover" stories that are science fiction foremost but rely on their horror elements for their impact. For example, do the Quatermass Stories count as SF or horror or both? Is Rudolph Cartier’s 1954 production of Nineteen Eighty-Four SF/horror or political allegory with horror elements? This is probably why the term "telefantasy" was coined. In the end we have to follow our gut instincts.
What is Telefantasy?
Telefantasy is a term originally coined by French writers who wanted to avoid long-winded sub-categories for programmes such as say The Avengers. It’s much handier to term it a "Telefantasy" show than forever listing it as "One Time Trenchcoat Gritty, Surreal, SF-tinged, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Secret Agent, Leather Sex-Cop Show". Basically, if a programme contains elements of SF, horror, the supernatural, mythology and/or surrealism, then it can be deemed to be "telefantasy".
This of course leads to all manner of rows about which shows count as such, but this is all part of the fun of telly-fandom.
Why the BBC?
For a variety of reasons, this article looks solely at the TV horror output of the BBC. Not that the ITV companies didn’t produce their own Horror and horror-tinged productions, HTV’s Children of the Stones leaps to mind for one. It’s just that the BBC has (or had) a more continuous run of horror projects, produced with, dare I say it, a lot more conviction.
The Great Archive Purge
What was once forbidden knowledge, then an open secret and nowadays a throwaway fact is that during the 1970s a great deal of the BBC archive went to the great electro-magnet in the sky.
There are many reasons for this, the first and foremost being that television is still not seen as a serious medium in Britain and all the websites and magazine articles in the world will not change that. Problems with repeat fees, clearances, copyright, the re-use of expensive videotape, the upgrade to 625-line colour telly and above all storage…
The BBC, to give them credit were saving as much stuff as they could on 16mm telerecordings, 35mm film and videotape, but of course they only had one place to put it in, the BBC Film and Video library. Imagine the BBC’s dismay when their fire insurance certificate came up for renewal at the start of the seventies, only to have the insurance agents take one look at the bulging library and threaten to refuse renewal.
So, the Beeb started pruning back its collection, starting off with an alphabetical grading system (A=Save F=Skip) to eventually having to save just a few "examples" of series’. That’s why we’re missing all of Late Night Horror and choice episodes of Out of the Unknown. A great cultural tragedy that the BBC have finally admitted and apologised for. In fact they’re starting to get a little annoyed when people bring this subject up. So, in the interests of balance it should be pointed out that the BBC was not alone in the junking of episodes.
ITV companies were up to the same thing at the same time, which is why we’re missing episodes of, for instance, The Georgian House or most of the first season of The Avengers. Also, it wasn’t just a British problem, with countless hours of television being torched or wiped in the US, to pick a country at random.
At least the Beeb can take a perverse pleasure in the fact that the seventies culture of "nick anything that ain’t nailed down" which existed at the Corporation saved quite a few episodes from the chop. After all, a pile of 16mm film cans labelled up to be junked, they’ll never miss them will they?
In The Beginning
The first BBC television horror story (in fact the first ever television horror production) was an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart back in the gas-fired Baird 25-line (or so) days of 1939. This of course was in the days before any real form of television recording existed, unless they had a film camera operating next to the TV cameras that is. So the programme is non-existent and was watched by so few people that, for all we know, it could well have been an old woman banging a bucket with a spoon for an hour.
With British television off-air for the duration of WWII, there wasn’t much to report until the 1950 production of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and that quickly fell below cultural radar. It took the singular talents of an up and coming young writer, one Nigel Kneale, to change all that. Linking up with producer Rudolph Cartier he produced the first trouser-filling BBC TV series with The Quatermass Experiment (1953).
Ambitious, innovative and daring, The Quatermass Experiment told in six thirty-minute episodes the tale of Professor Bernard Quatermass and his involvement with an abortive British space mission. An astronaut has returned, but something is horribly wrong with him.
It’s hard to describe the impact that this series had on the viewing public at the time, but it really did empty the pubs with people rushing home to see that particular night’s episode.
Kneale later played down the horror element of the show, saying that it only made up "one per-cent" of the content, but that’s not how the public remembers it. He then went on to adapt Orwell for Cartier’s controversial Nineteen Eighty-Four, which featured a powerhouse performance by Peter Cushing as Winston Smith, before returning again to Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958).
Apart from a 1954 adaptation of The Monkey’s Paw, fifties horror on the BBC meant Nigel Kneale.
The Swinging Sixties
The Sixties brought a new wind of change for BBC television, due in part to the distinctly hands-off approach of Director-General Hugh Carleton-Greene. Carleton-Greene was a man with a background in journalism (he’d been the Daily Telegraph’s Berlin correspondent at the time of the "Night of the Long Knives") and realised that his staff of young-buck producers probably knew more about what was good for television than he did.
Horror themed productions came thick and fast, these included The Tourelle Skull (1962), part of the anthology series Suspense, and a 1965 version of Sweeney Todd (part of the Gaslight Theatre thread). 1965 also saw the debut of Out of the Unknown, but more of that later.
Also re-emerging to regain his crown was Nigel Kneale with his 1963 ghost story The Road. Starring James Maxwell and likely lad Rodney Bewes, Road was set in 1770s rural Britain where a haunting of a wood turns out to be a future echo of some nuclear catastrophe.
Popping up in the Wednesday Play slot came Horror of Darkness (by John Hopkins) and shoved away on late-nights came the stand alone The Five-Nineteen, whilst forgotten on BBC2 lurked the series Witch-Hunt.
A huge boost for TV horror came with the 1968 Omnibus production of Whistle and I’ll Come To You. Based on an MR James story, directed by Jonathan Miller and starring the superb Michael Horden (with sterling support from the likes of Ambrose Coghill), Whistle richly deserves its reputation as the most frightening thing ever broadcast on television.
Unscathed by the archive purge, it surfaced again in 1986 as part of the BBC TV50 anniversary celebrations (it is now available on DVD). Masterful use of photography, editing and sound made this the obvious template for the A Ghost Story For Christmas dramas that were to come in the seventies.
Whistle contains so much that is frightening (a bit of rag dangling off a fishing line!) or downright bizarre (the scene between Horden and the concierge is like something out of Buñuel) that it deserves a book to itself.
Also in 1968 came BBC2’s colour anthology series Late Night Horror. Alas this series was consigned to the flames, and all we have are some publicity shots and some viewers’ fond memories of the Paddy Russell directed episode No Such Thing As A Vampire (based on a little known short story by Richard "I Am Legend" Matheson and starring Andrew Keir).
If there was a golden age of horror for BBC television then the 1970s were it. In fact it seemed there was a time in the mid seventies where that most British of genres, the Gothic Horror story infested Auntie’s output like a plague. From the sublime, Doctor Who (stories such as Pyramids of Mars, Horror of Fang Rock and The Talons of Weng-Chiang) to the ridiculous, The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town and Dave Allen at Large for example.
As for hardcore horror, we have to start in 1971, which not only saw the debut of A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Stalls of Barchester but also the fourth and final season of Out of the Unknown.
OOTU had kicked off in the sixties as a pretty much straight down the line SF anthology show. It featured adaptations of stories by "classic" science fiction authors such as Isaac Asimov and John Wyndham. However, by 1971 it had gone full belt for out and out supernatural/horror.
Amongst such lurid tales as The Shattered Eye and Deathday came The Chopper, penned by our old chum Nigel Kneale. Chopper sticks in peoples memories as the one where a female journalist is haunted by the revving of a dead biker’s Harley (or knowing the Beeb, Suzuki 250). Also present is Patrick Troughton as a rather seedy garage owner.
Sad to relate, especially as this is the only OOTU I can vaguely recall, this episode no longer exists in the BBC archive.
No matter, as for winter 1972 we have BBC2’s anthology offering Dead of Night. This series was produced by the legendary Innes Lloyd, and featured seven stories of general spookiness. The episode The Exorcism by Don Taylor seems to be the one best remembered, though this could have something to do with a popular American film doing the rounds at the same time…
The same production team joined up with Nigel Kneale (him again) to present the Christmas Day ’72 opus The Stone Tape. In fact there seems to be some debate as to whether this story was meant to be part of Dead of Night or that year’s Christmas ghost story.
As Lawrence Gordon Clark’s team had already produced A Warning to the Curious for Christmas Eve, we can make our minds up accordingly.
The Stone Tape remains one of the oddest things ever broadcast by the Beeb. In which Jane Asher stumbles across a haunted room in a research facility and that the haunting may actually be a recording held by its stone walls. A mix of the occult, science and occasional washing machines for ninety minutes, leading up some stone stairs to some bizarre electronic effects.
Almost lost in 1972’s horror fest was Terry Nation’s The Incredible Robert Baldick: Never Come Night. A proposed pilot for a long abandoned series featuring Robert Hardy as the eponymous investigator/inventor and all round clever-dick, Mr Baldick.
Chugging off in his private train to sort out nasty occultish goings-on in rural England, Baldick discovers an ancient evil that may in fact be something from the future. (What was that Mr Kneale? You can’t sue him, he’s dead.)
1973 brought the anthology series Menace, which included a well-remembered episode Boys and Girls Come Out to Play (starring Peter Jeffrey and Sarah Sutton). A creepy story featuring kids in a suburban cul-de-sac who meet at night to play… and eventually murder. Alas, that didn’t survive the archive purge either. With Menace out of the way, there was a lull in which only Clark’s Christmas ghost stories held sway. These being the low-key but creepy Lost Hearts (1973) and the "tramp’s hot breath on your nape" that was 1974’s offering The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.
Some effort was put into the Play for Today: Penda’s Fen (as well as the later PFT: Vampires) but it was all a big run-up for that year’s ghost story The Ash Tree (1975, with Lalla Ward).
1976 saw the BBC have a crack at Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. Featuring such big names as John Geilgud and the boyish Peter Firth as Dorian Grey.
A Ghost Story for Christmas came back with a steam-whistle wallop with The Signalman. The first Ghost Story not to be based on a MR James tale, instead the production team went with a little known Charles Dickens spooker. Incidentally, there is evidence to show Dickens wrote the story as a way of coping with the post-traumatic stress of being in one of England’s worst rail crashes (with his mistress, natch).
A seriously upsetting programme held together by Denholm Elliot’s stalwart performance of a man shattering under stress and the mental electronic soundtrack of Stephen Deutsch.
The images of the figure by the rails, a bride falling from a speeding train, smoke from a tunnel pile-up billowing silently from the tunnel mouth and our Victorian gentleman (Bernard Lloyd) alone in a fog-shrouded field, haunt the mind long after their transmission.
Coming into that heady punk rock and Jubilee year of 1977, the BBC had another series for our perusal. Unfortunately, it turned out to be Supernatural.
The series was set in Victorian times at the fictional Club of the Damned, where prospective members would gain entry by telling a true horror story of their life. If they convinced the members, they would gain entry, if not, then they would be put to death.
Why did Supernatural fail? Was it the garish video it was recorded on? Was it the fact that the club members looked more like Mycroft Holmes’ bridge partners than bent Hellfire types? Was it the fact the series was broadcast in high summer? Or was it due to the fact that it wasn’t scary? Gentlemen, the vote!
With a competent production crew and an all star cast, the blame has to lie with writer Robert Muller (who wrote all the episodes apart from Viktoria, which was by Sue Lake). The only episode of note being Dorabella starring Jeremy Clyde, though Night of the Marrionettes has its fans. However, it’s a bit of a bum note.
Much better was the December premiere of Count Dracula (adapted by Gerald Savory).
Sticking closely to Bram Stoker’s novel, but cleverly giving the title role some EuroThrust with the casting of Louis Jourdan as well as presenting us with the screen’s wettest Jonathan Harker (as he should be) in Bosco Hogan.
Although some elements jar to the modern audience, that noisy gear change of going from filmed exteriors to VT interiors being the main culprit, the adaptation still works well. Even with Frank Finlay making a meal of his role as Van Helsing. However, even he pales in comparison with the haunted visage that is Jack Shepherd’s Renfield. A class act and no mistake.
That year’s Christmas ghost story being the misjudged (in my opinion) Stigma, led to Lawrence Gordon Clark loping off to ITV (where he’d turn out a version of The Casting of the Runes and bother Stephen Gallagher for a while before returning to the beeb to direct Casualty, where he occasionally slips in a sly nod to Ghost Stories).
As the decade grinded to a halt so too did the Christmas ghost stories with 1978’s totally forgotten The Ice House. The BBC did have the good sense to transmit during Christmas week 1978 the series Late Night Story. Using the el cheapo Jackanory approach of a storyteller in one set, this featured the talents of Tom Baker. Uncle Tom attacked each story with some relish, the best being The Photograph by none other than Nigel Kneale. A story of boy meets demonic photographer, with some delicious lines about "fingernails being cracked and open from chemicals" for Mr Baker to roar around.
However, our old friends at Omnibus saved the best till last with the 1979 Leslie Megahey masterpiece Schalcken the Painter. Based on the story by Sheridan Le Fanu (who is heard as Charles Gray’s voiceover) this was a rare and exquisite creature indeed.
Transmitted just before Christmas (December 23, 1979), Schalcken intertwined expertly LeFanu’s Horror story and the lifestyles, careers and techniques of the Flemish school of painting. From Jeremy Clyde’s turn as the tortured Schalcken to the late, great Maurice Denham as the perpetually money counting Gerritt Dou, the acting is first rate and the work of (proper) Lighting Cameraman John Hooper is enough to make you weep.
I for one would have repeated it the same week that David Hockney broadcast his documentary on his theory about how painters of the period were all using camera obscuras and lenses. Oh yes David, what about Schalcken’s use of pitch-black emptiness lit only by candlelight? Puts the mockers on your theory a bit, don’t it?
Eighties, I’m living in the Eighties
That was it for the golden age of BBC telly horror. Public anxiety about the "Big One" led to more in-your-face offerings such as (the superb) Edge of Darkness. In 1981 we did have the sprawling three-hour long Artemis 81. A mish-mash of mythology, apocalyptic horror and Sting. Not really what we were after.
The final fling for BBC horror came with Stephen Volk’s "wrath of the Tabloids" Ghostwatch. Times had obviously changed, as the BBC visibly shat itself with the media fallout following transmission and has kept well away from out and out horror ever since. Social realism yes, supernatural shockers, no.
Even the 1994 series Ghosts shunned scariness and replaced it with bafflement. Not the rewarding bafflement of say, Twin Peaks, but with the feeling of "so what?" that you get after sitting through an episode of Jonathan Creek.
So come on BBC, remember your legacy and scare us.