❉ With retro comedy-horror ‘Inside No.9’s recent Christmas special still fresh in our minds, we look back at its antecedents…
Whilst American anthology serials such as ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ remain relatively well known thanks to repeat showings over the decades, remakes, and home entertainment releases, the early days of British supernatural anthology series are mostly lost in the mists of time. A dozen years after author Algernon Blackwood had read his own supernatural stories, ‘Jackanory-style, on the BBC as ‘Saturday Night Stories’, the first bona-fide horror drama anthology series, ‘Tales of Mystery’, based itself on adaptations of Blackwood’s tales for three series on ITV. Blackwood having died a decade earlier in 1951, future ‘Dad’s Army’ star, John Laurie, took on the role of Blackwood to introduce each episode.
A similar fictionalised host introduced, and often took part in the early episodes of ITV’s ‘Mystery and Imagination’ (1966-1970). David Buck played Richard Beckett, a character who originated in J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s story “The Room in the Dragon Volant”, while the series was made up of adaptations of classic tales by Le Fanu, M.R. James, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde (Bruce Forsyth played ‘The Canterville Ghost’), Bram Stoker, and many others from the gaslit age of classical horror. While the remaining episodes of the series have been released on DVD, the majority of the series exists only as a selection of mouthwatering photographs and in the memories of those who watched them at the time.
More contemporary horror came in a collaboration with Hammer Films on ITV’s ‘Journey to the Unknown’ in 1969, while early colour tests brought BBC2 viewers ‘Late Night Horror’ the year before. Aside from a film copy of one episode of recently recovered by archive TV organisation Kaleidoscope after years of being known to exist in private hands, this series has long been lost, though the unnerving opening titles were found on a showreel several years ago.
Several supernatural or psychological themed episodes in the final season of ‘Out of the Unknown’ aside, the early 70s are possible best remembered in TV-horror terms for the annual ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ offerings. But contemporary chills came to the fore again in 1972, when the BBC showed a seven-part series entitled ‘Dead of Night’. Although four of the seven episodes are now missing (in 1972 no one expected the availability of video recorders or DVD players in homes, so programmes were destroyed when they were no longer needed) the remaining three are entertaining indeed.
The Exorcism is particularly strong, an extremely grim story in which four people find themselves enjoying the worst dinner party in history: they are trapped in their home by the spirits of people who died centuries before them. Very much a piece of social commentary as it is a ghost story, the script by Don Taylor is some ten years ahead of its time in its depiction of the ruling classes profiting at the expense of the poor (given the rise of consumerism and capitalism of the 1980s, the story feels remarkably prescient).
Originally intended to be the eighth episode, Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape was allowed an increased running time and was shown BBC1 on Christmas Day 1972. This terrifying ghost story remains one of Kneale’s finest works.
ITV began to show ‘Thriller’ from 1973. Devised by series creator Brian Clemens as a series of suspenseful stories, this anthology series quite frequently stepped into the realm of horror.
Many stories featured a theoretically impossible situation (in one episode two friends book in to separate rooms in a hotel. The next morning the second friend is missing and no trace can be found of her, nor that she ever even existed) before exploring the situation and providing a satisfactory explanation (after the maximum amount of tension has been gained).
The supernatural may not have been frequently used, but horror themes were prevalent throughout, particularly in the more gruesome episodes. Possession sees the ghost of a murdered woman haunting a house; Someone at the Top of the Stairs has the startling appearance of a vampire; A Place to Die sees villagers in a demonic cult; Spell of Evil has a witch as its antagonist; Kiss Me and Die has echoes of Edgar Allan Poe; One Deadly Owner features a haunted car; I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill is a terrifying cat-and-mouse story with a serial killer stalking his victim in a deserted office block.
Death to Sister Mary shows what happens to a fan who blurs fiction with fantasy and begins stalking his favourite actress from a television series; Nurse Will Make It Better features a splendid performance by Diana Dors as a particularly nasty witch; students are terrorised by a professor with particularly unethical ideas about human testing in A Killer in Every Corner; a psychopathic stalker terrorises Carol Lynley in If it’s a Man – Hang Up!; psychic powers link a couple in Won’t Write Home Mom – I’m Dead; Sleepwalker appears to be about precognition, with a particularly good twist.
‘Thriller’ episodes were usually around 70 minutes long (with commercials they ran to an hour and half – they were shown as TV movies) and the series was very successful.
Series which featured a variety of stories (some horror, some suspense; all thrillers) were very popular and after ITV had shown a one-off play – Murrain – by Nigel Kneale, they commissioned him to write a television series. Beasts, six individual stories with a loose link to various animals, was one of the strongest horror series ever shown on television. During Barty’s Party, an absolutely terrifying episode about a plague of ferocious rats (which remain unseen throughout) is the single most disturbing thing this writer has ever seen on television.
Other episodes in the series are also strong, but the series is worth tracking down on DVD simply to see what many viewers still recall as “that one with the rats”. Beautifully written, acted and designed (the sound effects are some of the best ever done on a television programme), During Barty’s Party retains its power to chill.
‘Supernatural’, a BBC anthology series in eight parts, was broadcast from June to August, 1979. (People hoping for membership of an exclusive club must tell a scary story to gain entry. Only those whose stories are genuinely disturbing are allowed to join. The eight episodes were Ghosts of Venice, with Robert Hardy and Sinéad Cusack; Countess Ilona, with Billie Whitelaw, Ian Hendry and Edward Hardwicke; The Werewolf Reunion, with Billie Whitelaw, Ian Hendry and Edward Hardwicke; Mr Nightingale, with Jeremy Brett and Lesley-Anne Down; Lady Sybil, with Denholm Elliott; Viktoria, with Catherine Schell and Judy Cornwell; Night of the Marionettes, with Gordon Jackson, Kathleen Byron and Vladek Sheybal; Dorabella, with Jeremy Clyde. The series is due to be released on DVD this year.
At the same time, ITV offered the longest-running and most often remembered anthology series – ‘Tales of the Unexpected’. More than a hundred episodes, over nine series, were broadcast and attracted such stars as José Ferrer, Michael Hordern, Julie Harris, Elaine Stritch, Brian Blessed, Susan George, Joan Collins, John Gielgud, Peter Bowles and Joseph Cotton in the first series alone.
Viewers revelled in its macabre tales (and some of them were very macabre indeed), and the series is still shown on television in the UK to this day. As the series progressed it would also step into more gentle, whimsical stories (interestingly, no supernatural stories were ever featured – when horror appeared it was always very much of the ‘real’ variety) but it is for the more macabre entries that the series is remembered. Read more here.
‘Hammer House of Horror’ was broadcast while ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ was still in production, and 1984 saw ‘Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense’, which featured stories in the same vein as those offered by Thriller a decade before. Read more here.
Perhaps the audience preferred ‘Tales of the Unexpected’’s shorter format, of perhaps shorter episodes were easier to schedule – neither was sold widely in America and, given their production costs, second seasons of each could not be afforded without overseas backing (unlike the more budget-conscious Tales of the Unexpected, which was sold around the world).
Children had their own anthology series in ‘Shadows’, which ran for three seasons and featured a variety of spooky stories and also enlisted the acting talents of such experienced thespians as John Nettleton, David Jason, Gareth Thomas, Brian Glover, Jenny Agutter, June Brown, Pauline Quirke, Rachel Herbert, Gwyneth Strong and Jacqueline Pearce. With writers including such names as J. B. Priestley, Fay Weldon and PJ Hammond the series was a great success. It led to the commissioning of ‘Dramarama’, a series showcasing drama for a young audience that ran from 1983 to 1989. A number of episodes featured unashamed horror elements (Snap is a particularly fine example: an older teenager, walking on the moors, finds he is being pursued by a mirror image of himself. The twist ending is highly effective).
When ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ finished, it would be more than a decade before another horror anthology was attempted. In 1995 The BBC offered ‘Ghosts’, a six-part series, and ITV went for the five-part ‘Chiller’. Despite strong casts and stories in both series, they never became hits with the audience.
There have been other Horror anthologies since – ‘Urban Gothic’ on Channel 5, Spine chillers on BBC3, and the follow up ‘Twisted Tales’, and even ‘Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible’, a spoof anthology series introduced by Dr Terrible (a very Roald Dahl-like character, beautifully played by Steve Coogan who also co-wrote the series and appears in various other parts within each story). Each episode spoofs a particular kind of horror. Anthology horror films Vault of Terror and Dr Terror’s House of Horror were obvious influences, as are Witchfinder General and various Hammer Horror films.
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❉ Many of the programmes discussed in this article have been released on DVD by Network Distribution and BFI DVD and are available from Amazon. Check out the following affiliate links for details.