Game Without Frontiers: ‘Late Night Horror – The Corpse Can’t Play’

Andrew Screen reviews Kaleidoscope’s colour restoration of 1968 BBC horror, The Corpse Can’t Play, and accompanying book about the series.

Running to just six episodes Late Night Horror had the distinction of being the first anthology horror series produced in colour by the BBC. The programme’s producer, Harry Moore, and script editor Richard Davis, a self-confessed horror fan, adopted a no holds barred approach to the material for the series which would result in a mixed reaction and the BBC not granting a second run of episodes. After a repeat in 1970 the master tapes for all the episodes were wiped and the production would become mythologised by archive television fans as something of a holy grail. If nothing else it was a historically important landmark in British television production techniques and those lucky enough to have seen the stories recalled that they had a tantalising gruesome tone. The programme grew in legend and stature as the years passed.

Then, in early 1984, a 16mm monochrome film print (produced by the BBC for potential overseas sales) of the episode The Corpse Can’t Play came to light in the hands of a private collector. An attempt to purchase the copy was made, but this was frustrated by the fact that film had been sold a scant ten minutes earlier. Hopes of the print being returned to the archives seemed to be dashed until over thirty years later when in 2016 the print surfaced for sale on eBay. Archive television society Kaleidoscope secured the print and set about restoring the material, reducing print damage and attempting to recover the colour via a process which reads the chroma dots in the 16mm film. After much work the episode has now been released by Kaleidoscope as a limited edition DVD and book available from their website.

It is certainly an ambitious project for the group who have been constantly instrumental in helping to recover archive TV material over the last few decades. It is possibly their most complex and important project to date and in the main they have achieved what they set out to do, however there are some issues with how the project has been finally presented to purchasers as we shall see… But first, what of the actual episode contents itself?

The Corpse Can’t Play, the third episode of the series, was adapted by Hugh Leonard from the 1965 short story Party Games by John Burke and it is easy to see why it has become the stuff of legend. The episode is presented on the disc in either the unrestored black and white print or the restored version. Extras include an original series trailer presented by Valentine (The Man in Black) Dyall in fine sepulchral form and a short featurette on the considerable amount of restoration that has been undertaken. The episode begins with a remarkably unsettling title sequence which is a Pan horror anthology book cover made flesh. The restored version has a slightly washed out palette, but the colour recovery is still amazing considering what they had to work with. It is a remarkable restoration of what was a scuffed and tired monochrome print. 

The story is centred on a child’s birthday party for Ronnie Jarman (Frank Barry) who we will find out is a vindictive little shit. The kids are feral as they fight and squabble over games much to the annoyance of Ronnie’s mother Alice (Clare Austin). There is a late arrival in the form of Milky Bar kid from hell Simon Potter (Michael Newport) formally dressed in a suit and tie. Despite having bought an expensive present for the horrible Ronnie he is instantly rejected by the other children. In the kitchen mother fills in the deprived background that Simon suffers to the audience and her friend. His father has recently died and he has to stay longer at school as there is no one at home to look after him as his mother has to work. Interesting to note that the play firmly sticks to gender roles of the period – Alice and her friend are at home supervising the party, Ronnie’s father is at work and poor Simon’s mum now has to work as her partner is deceased.

Back in the living room Ronnie suggests a new game getting the children to act out their father’s job for the others to guess. This has been deliberately set up to belittle and ostracise Simon as Ronnie knows his dad is dead. Ronnie’s father, Tom (Neil Hallett) arrives home carrying his new gardening equipment which includes a shiny new axe and hoe (Chekhov’s gardening tools). In the other room Simon has declined to act out his dad’s occupation and so Ronnie happily obliges by lying prostrate on the floor, his arms crossed across his chest in tranquil repose. Ronnie’s father enters before events spiral and Simon suggests a new game which is instantly rejected by the others. Instead Ronnie suggests a game of murder in the dark.

In the kitchen Tom says he suspects the others are punishing Simon for gate crashing. The game commences and Ronnie offers Simon a good hiding place and promptly locks him in an upstairs cupboard. Meanwhile Tom sets out to store his new tools and hears knocking from the upstairs cupboard. To say anymore will spoil the ending, but it is easy to see why the episode was considered so shocking at the time of original transmission. It has a very graphic, gruesome Grand-Guignol denouement which would be tricky to justify showing even in the present day.

The accompanying book with the DVD is a complete guide to the entire series written by Colin Cutler and Steve Rogers. It is extremely rich in detail as it tracks the series from its origins through to broadcast and reception. Each episode is given a synopsis and an individual production history in minute detail. Other sections examine unused storylines and explain the restoration of the episode. Johnny Mains supplies an equally detailed biography of John Burke which outlines his work as a writer and editor. The contents of the book cannot be faulted.

However, there are problems with the formatting of the book. Fonts change from page to page, there are lapses in layout which result in badly aligned cast and crew lists and there are “ghost marks” left over from the word processing. The disc itself comes slipped inside the book in just a plain clear plastic sleeve. It would have been better served in either a printed sleeve or even its own DVD case. These issues are really such a shame as it gives the product a rushed and slipshod feel. Considering the package comes to just under £30 with postage these faults make it all feel a little economical in approach.

The book and DVD will become highly collectable I’m sure as it is limited edition release (Kaleidoscope have exclusive rights until the end of September 2022) and the contents of the book and the resources spent on the restoration cannot be faulted. More attention to presentation and the clumsy formatting would have made this a totally essential and polished release for archive TV fans. If you can tolerate these faults the release is still highly recommended as the contents of the DVD and book are very, very strong.

Hopefully Kaleidoscope will overcome these issues on potential future releases so they can secure a place as the archive TV equivalent of boutique DVD/Blu-ray labels such as 88 Films, Indicator or Arrow.

❉ For more than 25 years, Kaleidoscope has vigorously and actively encouraged the cause of wider archive access and regularly creates opportunities for the public  to engage with the history of British television and view programmes from the past. Click HERE to order ‘Late Night Horror – The Corpse Can’t Play’ (Kaleidoscope DVD and Book) RRP £24.00.

❉ Andrew Screen writes on things film and television by night and by day is a SEN practitioner with thirty years’ experience. He has written for Action TV and was editor of the magazine’s website for several years. His work has been published in Creeping Flesh Volume 1 and 2 (Headpress), The Sapphire and Steel Omnibus (Pencil Tip Publishing) as well as Horrified Magazine. His guide to Nigel Kneale’s Beasts is forthcoming from Headpress in 2023. Follow him on Twitter: @aneercs

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