‘Chimera’ (1991): An Appreciation

Will Nett revisits ITV’s long-forgotten chilling adaptation of Stephen Gallagher’s 1982 novel.

“Rarely repeated… Chimera endures as much for its slow-burn anticipation of its antagonist, as it does for the questions it poses around genetic engineering gone awry.”

I can barely look at a red plaid shirt, even now, without feeling the jolt of terror that first seized me in the summer of 1991, aged 11, on seeing the loping primordial figure of ‘Chad’ in ITV’s chilling adaptation of Stephen Gallagher’s 1982 novel Chimera. Doused in the ethereal theme tune of Chameleon’s Rosheen Du, and the accompanying aural leitmotif of screeching strings over the opening credits, it left an impression that still lingers, over 30 years later.

A Proustian rush of fear fell upon me during a recent rewatch, as the somewhat lumpy exposition of the first episode was brought to a thrilling flame-torched crescendo of violence by our unseen antagonist, as he – it – escapes the shady Jenner Institute and disappears into the countryside. This was genetic engineering, red in tooth and claw, gone awry, in the era of Jurassic Park and Dolly the Sheep, although to my knowledge Dolly did not go rampaging around Yorkshire – specifically Kettlewell and Malham, where location shooting took place – knifing farmers. It is left to George Costigan’s tenacious just-about-to-jet-off on-holiday detective to bring ‘Chad’ in, as the police butt heads with the board of the government-run laboratory, the military, and the local community.

Along the way a cast of before-they-were-famous faces, mostly Scouse for some reason, appear in various guises; Paul O’Grady as a sign-language-versed social worker brought in to communicate with the animals; Liza Tarbuck as ‘woman with plant on bus trip’ who becomes entangled with John Lynch’s crusading journalist as he prods the murky waters of related government cover ups. His ex-girlfriend, played by Christine Kavanagh, works at the Jenner Institute following a relocation from London and the breakup of their relationship, giving Lynch’s character a two-pronged challenge; get to the bottom of the unfolding horrors, and win back his ex.

The only people who can apparently rein Chad in are two children at a nearby farmhouse, who set him up in the barn and look after him in a neat display of the ‘kids don’t judge’ trope, even when you’re a hulking great primate with a predilection for ripping people’s faces off. This is best evidenced when Chad slaughters their parents, one of whom is Coronation Street’s Roy Cropper, (David Neilson), hardly recognizable without his carrier bag. The dichotomy of innocent children living hand-to-mouth alongside Chad adds a further eeriness to proceeding as the bickering authorities close in over the course of four episodes. It is perhaps notable that it is not until episode 3 that Chad’s pallid dreadful face is revealed to us, and testament to Image Animation’s ‘Little’ John Cormican and Simon Sayce for the remarkable pre-CGI prosthetic effects that were developed whilst working on Hellraiser and Nightbreed.

Combined with global authority Peter Elliott’s primate movement choreography, ahead of an era since monopolized by Andy Serkis, and our villain is as menacing as anything seen on TV screens at the time. Douglas Mann’s Chad does, however, carry a human pathos that infects the viewer with a certain sympathy as the show moves towards its denouement and a chilling final scene that leaves audiences open-mouthed.

Rarely repeated, though, as if by coincidence recently running on that trove of ’80s/’90s television, Forces TV, Chimera appeared on the back of the BBC’s 1988 adaptation of Maureen Duffy’s 1982 novel Gor Saga starring Charles Dance, and retitled simply Gor. Chimera though, ramps up the violence. It is worth noting that Gallagher’s novel appeared shortly before Duffy’s, but both take their cues from the ever-enduring Planet of the Apes franchise.

Chimera, later aired in America under the considerably more primitive title Monkey Boy endures as much for its slow-burn anticipation of its antagonist; see Jaws for a classic example, as it does for the questions it poses around genetic engineering.

All episodes of Chimera are available on YouTube at time of writing, as is a brief, but no less interesting excerpt from a production house documentary about Image Animation’s development of the prosthetics and special effects.

‘Chimera’ (1991) was originally broadcast on ITV, 7 July – 28 July 1991. The complete series was released on DVD in the United Kingdom by Revelation Films Ltd in July 2010 and is currently out of print. The series was repeated for the first time on Forces TV on the 19th and 20th February 2022.

Author Will Nett’s global appeal and general popularity have seen his writing career straddle two Millennia. His work has appeared across a wide range of publications, from his ever-popular books, to short-form contributions for institutions such as Crossing The Tees, and Arts Council England. His most recent work,  Bank Notes, is anthology of peculiar short stories in the vein of Stephen King, Shirley Jackson and Robert Aickman. Follow him on Twitter: @will_nett

Become a patron at Patreon!