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Hiding Behind The Sofa:
A Top 10 British TV Horrors

by Jonathan McCalmont

With films such as Neil Marshall's The Descent and Dog Soldiers garnering critical success on both sides of the Atlantic, it has become fashionable in recent times to talk about British horror in the way that one might talk about Japanese or Korean horrors. But for all the classic Hammer horror films and the Wicker Men out there, Britain also has a rich history of fantastic horror that is altogether too easily overlooked by genre historians.
In fact, you didn't even need to leave the sanctity of your own home to have access to it. I speak of the kind of television horror series that have kept generations of British people hiding behind the sofa.

However, before we begin, I should say something about the availability of these and other titles. While modern digital technology and a growing awareness of what Wired magazine's Chris Anderson calls the Long Tail mean that today's television companies are aware of the long term value of the TV series they produce, this was not always the case. Poor storage procedures and a short-sighted desire to save money by taping new shows over the original recordings of older ones mean that to this day many classic TV series are incomplete or even completely lost. As a result, this list only really scratches the surface of all the great old horror series and ghost stories that have aired over the years.

Another thing that is worth noting about this list is the over-representation of titles written by Nigel Kneale. Famed for his creation of Quatermass, Kneale is undeniably the single most influential writer in the history of British genre broadcasting. Famously refusing to characterise himself as a science fiction writer, Kneale sees himself as a mainstream dramatist who merely employs fantastical ideas as a vehicle through which to explore different ideas. This attitude is perhaps unsurprising given the theatrical roots of British genre TV. Indeed, while American genre TV of the period owed as much to the cinematic pulps as it did to mainstream action adventure programmes (Roddenberry famously pitched Star Trek as 'Wagon Train to the stars'), British genre TV frequently found itself going out as part of low-budget mainstream drama formats such as Omnibus or Playhouse, which normally aired more traditional kitchen sink dramas. This meant that British horror writers could not rely upon special effects and dramatic scores for their impact, instead British writers frequently had little more to work with than a set, a few actors and an idea. Given this climate and Kneale's creative agenda, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is now impossible to look at the history of British genre without seeing Kneale's fingerprints, even Doctor Who (a series he always refused to write for) bears the unmistakable traces of Kneale's influence.

However, ultimately it is this symbiotic relationship between British genre TV and Nigel Kneale that would ultimately sew the seeds of the death of genre TV in Britain. As special effects' technology began to improve and the auteur-driven cinema of the early 1970s was replaced by summer blockbusters, it became harder and harder to capture the imagination of the British public. Indeed, how can you justify the shaky cardboard sets and cheaply assembled monsters of this series in the face of Star Wars or even Battlestar Galactica? Suddenly, the creative agenda that had produced so many triumphs seemed to be a national laughing-stock and first the evening play disappeared from our screens and then British genre in general. Ironically, the most recent evidence of the death of the creative values that founded British genre comes from its most startling recent success. Russell T. Davies' Doctor Who boasts celebrity cameos, spectacular special effects and a desire to be as accessible and as easy to watch as possible. However, from time to time and between Peter Kay in a thong and yet another load of Daleks you can see in the new Who the faintest of shadows of the man who made thousands hide behind the sofa with nothing but a few actors, a set and an idea.
behind the sofa


Quatermass And The Pit (1958)
Widely and justly seen as Kneale's masterpiece, Quatermass And The Pit is set on an archaeological dig in the centre of London that unwittingly uncovers the remains of an ancient alien spacecraft. Characteristically blending the genres of horror and science fiction, Kneale calls on ghosts, spaceships and psychic projection in this apocalyptic exploration of man's violent and xenophobic nature as well as the frequently tense relationship between science and politics. Spreading the storyline over six episodes, Kneale not only expertly builds tension but also times his plot revelations in such a way as to rhythmically create cliff-hangers that give the impression that each episode is peeling away another layer of history, like the skin of an onion, until the truth is uncovered. Beautifully performed and designed, it is difficult not to see this iconic series as the template for Doctor Who with its mature and moral scientist hero who uses reason and knowledge to solve his problems rather than force. Not only is Quatermass And The Pit intellectually challenging, it also boasts a nightmarish and apocalyptic ending that is as disturbing as it is compelling to watch. The only cloud on the horizon is the rather amusingly old-fashioned way in which working class people are represented as forelock-tugging simps. Perhaps unsurprising and forgivable given the period in which the series was made, you can't help but smile at the look of relief on the face of a BBC reporter when an intelligent middle class person turns up to be interviewed.
Quatermass and the Pit

Ultraviolet (1998)
It is perhaps unfortunate that the transmission of Ultraviolet should post-date the launch of that most influential of US genre shows, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, as Joss Whedon's epic has effectively made it impossible to say anything interesting about vampires and be heard. Especially if you're a British TV show. Written and directed by This Life's Joe Ahearne, Ultraviolet was a six-part series focussing on Jack Davenport, whose encounter with the vampirised remains of an old friend lead him to be recruited by a shadowy government organisation headed by a failed priest and devoted to the detection and eradication of what they refer to, euphemistically, as 'class fives'. Aside from a number of minor innovations such as humanising vampires and examining their folk law through the lens of 20th century science, Ultraviolet continues to be unique in the vampire genre by virtue of its abandonment of the old moral certainties. Indeed, right from the beginning, the vampires portray themselves as a persecuted minority, forever hunted and tormented by humans and the Catholic Church for their difference. As the series plays out, Ahearne puts his characters through a number of challenges that forces them to examine their own morals and the morality of their treatment of vampires. For example, would it be moral to terminate a healthy baby with vampire genes? Would it be acceptable to sacrifice a few humans in order to allow humans and vampires to co-exist? An underrated and clearly gifted director, Ahearne rarely puts a foot wrong in assembling a number of chilling and tense set pieces before the final episodes reveal the truth about the war against the vampires. The series also boasts a number of great performances including a cameo by Corin Redgrave that reminds you why the Redgrave name carries such gravitas. Aside from being chilling and revolutionary, watching Ultraviolet now also makes for a profound experience, as many of the questions about integration and compromised morality seem very topical in the light of the 'war on terror'.
Ultraviolet

The Stone Tape (1972)
Transmitted in 1972 as a ghost story for Christmas, this Nigel Kneale piece is about a technology company that buys an old mansion as a research laboratory only to discover that it is haunted. However, while trying to work out how the ghostly information is stored and how one could access it, the researchers come to realise that there's more on the tape than they initially thought. Like Quatermass And The Pit, The Stone Tape is vintage Kneale, as he blends the ghost story and science fiction genres to create a new spin on that traditional horror theme of people trying to learn things that man should never know. In this case, we have the ambitious and energetic scientist trying to work out how a room can store and then replay images of a woman falling to her death. Delving further and further into the outer reaches of science, he alienates first his team and then his employer, but he also energises a female computer programmer who uses her skills to look beyond the crude technological and economic possibilities of the group's discovery to the wider picture of what it means to the history of life on this planet and the hideous Lovecraftian horrors that dwell deep in the Earth's past. The genius of The Stone Tape lies in its onionskin plot. Much like Quatermass And The Pit, Kneale slowly uncovers more and more of the mystery while systematically closing off old sources of terror and opening up new ones. In practice, this means that when the ghost is initially encountered it is presented in a chilling fashion but rather than milk the same idea over and over again, the plot drags the researchers onwards and as they learn more about the phenomenon, they remove what made the last onionskin frightening only to reveal a whole new level that is even more weird and disturbing than the last. The Stone Tape is simply a masterclass both in writing a ghost story and in writing for television.
The Stone Tape

Ghostwatch (1992)
Despite being labelled as a play and clearly featuring 'written by' credits in the opening titles, this wonderfully postmodern ghost story has come to be seen as a hoax akin to Orson Welles' famous War Of The Worlds broadcast in 1938. Brilliantly aping the trappings and tropes of documentaries, live broadcasts and reality TV to the point of using familiar TV faces as actors, Ghostwatch begins as a knockabout investigation of the "most haunted house in Britain." However, before long things start to go wrong as, in a clear nod to the writing style of Nigel Kneale, the layers of history peel back to reveal a house with a past full of murder and abuse stretching back decades and culminating in the haunting of the house by a ghost known only as 'Pipes'. Originally conceived as an epic series of faux documentaries on British haunted houses, the film packs in a number of clever tricks such as showing Pipes in the corner of the room briefly only for him to be gone when the camera tracked back to look again. Indeed, the film was originally supposed to end with static and a low frequency hum as used by Gaspard Noe in the opening of Irreversible. This note has the interesting side effect of making people who hear it feel intensely uncomfortable and frightened. In hindsight, given the mild panic that the programme caused, the BBC's decision to remove the note was probably for the best. Aside from being technically inspired, Ghostwatch is also brilliantly written and incredibly scary right up until the arguably over the top ending. In true Knealean style, the combination of genres here allows the writers to explore how easy it is to manufacture authenticity and truth on television. Indeed, all it took was an outside broadcast unit, Michael Parkinson and some shaky camerawork and people were ready to believe that Parky was possessed. However, perhaps the greatest sign of this film's artistic success is that it still manages to be scary even when you know that what's going on is faked. That success is ultimately down to a strong plot and a solid grasp of how the horror genre works.
Ghostwatch

The Woman In Black (1989)
Based on a novel by Susan Hill, this TV movie was (like many of the entries on this list) broadcast at Christmas time. It tells the story of a young lawyer who takes the job of organising the estate of an old lady who owned a house on a causeway, resulting in it being marooned by sea and fog for much of the day. As the lawyer sorts through the former owner's belongings he learns of a tragic story of abandonment, despair and revenge as the sound of a cart accident echoes through the fog again and again driving him on to discover more about the history of the house and the identity of the mysterious woman in black. Despite being adapted by Nigel Kneale, this traditional ghost story shows none of the cleverness of Kneale's other scripts. Indeed, apart from the utterly terrifying ending, the only change Kneale made to this bleak and twisted tale of madness, obsession and alienation is the sex of the dog. Needless to say, the author did not approve of the changes. The enduring popularity of this piece is easy to understand; simply shot The Woman In Black is a traditional English ghost story that is thick with memorable imagery, buried passions and darkness. However possibly the greatest mystery surrounding this fantastic TV movie is the fact that it is currently unavailable on DVD in the UK - for, despite being so popular as to inspire a stage version that has been running continuously since 1989, this ghost story appeared only twice on TV before being released briefly on VHS and as a Region 1 DVD. At this point there are no plans to repeat the film and no plans to release it on DVD over here because the rights were bought by someone who is seemingly intent on depriving horror fans of one of the best traditional ghost story adaptations ever made for TV.
Woman in Black

Whistle And I'll Come To You (1968)
Adapted from a story by M.R. James (arguably the greatest British ghost story writer) and directed by the great Jonathan Miller, Whistle And I'll Come To You stars Michael Hordern as a bumbling Oxbridge don who becomes plagued by ghosts after blowing into a bone flute he digs up while hiking. Hordern's portrayal of an academic growing more and more out of touch with the rest of humanity is at once comical and harrowing to watch. The original short story was titled Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You My Lad and it's difficult not to read a Freudian subtext into the story of a man who devotes himself utterly to abstract academic questions so as to avoid dealing with the baser passions that compose his own sexuality. Indeed, after placing a long, thin, hard object to his lips, the professor becomes plagued by night terrors and ghostly movements beneath the bed sheets which, at first, he tries to deal with thanks to a brisk walk in the country, only for them to return again and again until he eventually succumbs to madness. Given the sheer quality of the creative minds involved in this project, it is not surprising that this simple and straightforward haunting story should take on not only such spine-tingling tension but also such deep and twisted subtexts. Miller's direction is simply stunning; his work a tribute to the idea that all you need to make great TV is a set, a few actors and an idea. Shot in stark black and white and boasting little or no special effects, Whistle And I'll Come To You is as challenging as it is frightening. On a side note, the BBC used to have a tradition of either screening a reading of an M.R. James story or filming a re-enactment. After a long hiatus, this tradition reasserted itself at Christmas 2005 on BBC Four. Given how many stories James wrote and how long it has been since many of these stories were adapted (and some of them are really showing their age), it would be nice if the BBC were to stick to this habit and introduce younger generations to the great British ghost story.
Whistle and I'll Come to You

The Signalman (1976)
Based on a short story by Charles Dickens, The Signalman is a low-key horror story about a railway signalman. Spending much of his time alone studying mathematics in his hut on a lonely stretch of the line, the protagonist starts receiving warnings from a mysterious ghostly figure. A story of loneliness, isolation and descent into madness, The Signalman stars Denholm Elliot and is directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, who began his directorial career directing nothing but Christmas ghost stories such as this one. As with Whistle And I'll Come To You, the formula of a set, a great actor and a great idea pays rich dividends as The Signalman manages to be wonderfully creepy despite a slightly predictable ending. Reportedly inspired by Dickens' involvement in the 1865 Staplehurst rail crash, the story points to a similarity between the implacable, unstoppable power of a train and the inevitable moment of our death that comes closer every second. Once the signalman becomes involved in the warnings, he cannot escape his fate anymore than someone involved in a train crash can escape when he sees the front of his train slam into something and the collision effects ripple back along the line. Dickens adds to this the spectre of loneliness and insanity for a man who spends most of his time alone, communicating only with other signalmen through the use of a bell that rings in cases of emergency. It's wonderfully creepy, and beautifully acted and directed.
The Signalman

Threads (1984)
Originally transmitted on the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, this bleak and harrowing look at the possible aftermath of a nuclear war is arguably one of the most powerful and shocking pieces of drama ever transmitted on British TV. Things start off slowly with us following around a couple of families as they go about their daily lives, utterly oblivious to the escalating tensions between US and Soviet forces following a failed coup in Iran. Alternating between traditional kitchen sink drama and documentary-style text informing us of the events in the Gulf, the piece manages to effectively forge an emotional bond between the viewer and the Sheffield families. When the bombs start to fall, Threads is completely uncompromising as it shows rotting corpses, looting, rapes, summary executions and the gradual breakdown and destruction of British society and the environment as the world slips into the grasp of a nuclear winter. The shocking images of human death and despair combine effectively with the dispassionate text informing us that the "10 to 15 million" unburied bodies in the streets of Britain lead to outbreaks of cholera that eventually see the population of Britain drop to five million. The final scene shows a woman giving birth to a twisted and deformed stillborn child. As the mother opens her mouth to screen, the piece finishes. Despite the fact that the threat of nuclear holocaust doesn't loom as close as it did in the mid-1980s, the sheer bleakness of Threads is still tangible and disconcerting. Intelligently written and made, the title reflects the fact that not only is our society tightly interconnected but that the threads that hold it together are so easily severed by a moment of madness.
Threads

Beasts (1976) In 1975, ATV commissioned Nigel Kneale to write a one off play about the supernatural. He gave them Murrain (included on the Beasts DVD as bonus material), a weird story about perceived witchcraft and hatred in the countryside. This play proved so successful that Kneale was commissioned to write six more. Clumped loosely around the theme of fantastical animals and ambiguous endings, the substance of the series varies from the weird to the disturbing to the downright terrifying. Featuring ideas as disparate as ghostly dolphins, haunted supermarkets and old men that turn into wolves, Beasts is always surprising and ceaselessly ambitious. Without ever resorting to special effects, the series pushes back the boundaries of what constitutes genre TV. Ever the revolutionary, Kneale self-parodies and engages in postmodernism as he drags his audience along behind him. As one might expect from a series as original as this, Kneale doesn't always hit the mark, but when he does he produces some of the finest and most original TV horror ever seen. From the Lovecraftian horror of unseen rats in During Barty's Party to the social commentary and exploration of abusive relationships in the horrific Baby, Kneale cements his legacy as the greatest of TV horror writers.
Beasts

Hammer House Of Horror (1980)
A discussion of British horror would not be complete without at least a mention of the great Hammer Films. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, Hammer dominated the horror genre by retelling familiar horror stories through the medium of gore and hot pants in a way that seemed to nicely capture the escapist appetites of the mainstream horror fans. While much of modern horror (from Texas Chain Saw Massacre to The Last House On The Left) can be seen as a reaction against the gothic excess of the Hammer films, the studio's last roll of the dice is often cruelly overlooked. Conscious of the changing marketplace, Hammer hired new writers and decided to take a run at television. However, instead of repackaging the old Hammer magic for the small screen, Hammer House Of Horror's 13 episodes are set in rural and suburban modern Britain. The grubby and cheap sets meshed nicely with the unexpectedly downbeat endings of many of the hour-long episodes. Undeniably uneven in quality, this series has enough iconic moments and fantastic performances to merit its inclusion in this list. High points include Peter Cushing as an ex-Nazi experimenting in human conditioning, and Carpathian Eagle, the episode that clearly influenced Basic Instinct, not to mention the famous scene of a children's party suddenly being showered with blood, which is shot in such a naturalistic manner that the children can't have been told about the blood beforehand. Hammer House Of Horror is also interesting as it marks a turning point in the history of British TV horror. When the series finished, the owners of Hammer returned to the same source for funding and eventually received it on the understanding that there would be less gore and less traditional horror elements. The result was Hammer House Of Mystery And Suspense. It's difficult to not read into this decision the impact of Tales Of The Unexpected, the hugely successful series of adaptations of Roald Dahl's short stories that went on to run until the late 1980s. Regardless of the reasons for it, Hammer House Of Horror marked the end of an era and a mood that made it acceptable for mainstream channels to show horror. We can only hope that that mood will someday return.
Hammer House of Horror

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