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Posts Tagged ‘Beasts’

That the past is another country is proved beyond any doubt by simply considering the nature of Nigel Kneale’s ITV series Beasts, from 1976. Yes, ITV, these days the home of The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, various soap operas and Downton Abbey (which to me looks very much like a soap that’s had a truckload of cash flung at it). Apart from soaps and pseudo-soaps set in hospitals and schools, the dramatic output of both ITV and BBC1 is almost exclusively genre shows, and the same few genres at that: cop shows and detective shows, mostly, although the BBC has hit upon a productive wheeze knocking out various fantasy series in the wake of the success of 21st century Doctor Who. No-one does single plays any more, no-one seems willing to touch real horror with a bargepole, and all the big name writers (with the exception of Steven Moffat) appear to work exclusively in the social-realist or aspirational-lifestyle idioms.

But to watch Beasts is to visit a TV world in which the same writer was able to script six standalone plays, quite different in tone and style, with no continuing elements beyond a vague thematic link: the relationship between human and animal, and the occasionally blurred lines between them. All the stories in Beasts are fundamentally horror, and all of them are interesting: some are psychological, others head more into the realm of full-on supernatural horror. This variety makes watching an episode of Beasts for the first time an especially engrossing experience, simply because you’re never completely sure what kind of ball Kneale is going to deliver to you.

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Beasts isn’t a prestige production, with little location filming, and all of that on VT (along with the interior scenes). Most of the stories only take place on a handful of sets. But the casts include a lot of well-known faces who were on the way up at the time, along with a handful of big names. The pacing of some of the episodes is a bit languid, and one of the striking things is that each one only has a single commercial break despite a running time of an hour – unthinkable on any of the modern ITV networks.

Not all the Beasts are equal, but it seems that everyone has their own opinion as to what the pick of the bunch is. I would say they were all worth watching, though not necessarily all for the same reasons.

For me, probably the weakest is Special Offer, the blackly comic tale of an ambitious young supermarket manager (Geoffrey Bateman) whose store is disrupted by the emergent telekinetic powers of one of his checkout girls (Pauline Quirke) – the phenomenon manifests in the form of the company’s animal mascot. To some extent this is basically Carrie set in a branch of Tesco, and Kneale milks the set-up for much of its comedic value. I couldn’t help but find the whole thing slightly misogynistic – Kneale seems to be sneering at the Quirke character as much as anyone else, and despite her power she’s never presented as anything other than pathetic. In common with a couple of other episodes, one gets a sense of the author struggling to find a way of stretching the concept to an hour. At least the special effects team appear to have had a lot of fun trashing the supermarket set at various points in the episode.

The Dummy features Bernard Horsfall (much-loved by Doctor Who fans for various guest spots) as a suit actor on the edge of a nervous breakdown: he plays the Dummy, a monster featuring in a series of clearly low-budget horror movies, but his beloved wife has run off with one of his co-stars and he’s struggling to cope. Eventually he loses his mind entirely and the Dummy takes over… The story is fairly straightforward, if a bit improbable (apparently Horsfall is the only person who can possibly wear the Dummy suit – this would be more plausible if the actual costume wasn’t so primitive), but it’s irresistible to see this as Kneale taking a few swipes at his sometime associates at Hammer Films (Thorley Walters from the Hammer rep company appears): the Dummy films are clearly modelled on the Hammer horror template.

A young Michael Kitchen and an old Patrick Magee are the main players in What Big Eyes, a story about a zealous young RSPCA officer whose investigations of exotic animal imports lead him to an unassuming pet shop. The owner of the shop is either a crank or a genius, who is intent upon using modern science to replicate the phenomenon of lycanthropy and turn himself into a wolf. This is the episode which more than any other plays with the series’ lack of a set format – is it going to turn out to be a psychological horror story or a proper werewolf tale? To say any more about the plot would be to spoil it. It’s a bit talky, but tense for most of its duration. There is a problem with a supposedly dead character visibly breathing throughout the climax, but that’s just 70s TV for you I’m afraid.

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During Barty’s Party is a formal little piece, such as might be written if Harold Pinter and James Herbert had ever collaborated. A middle-aged couple (Anthony Bale and Elizabeth Sellars) have a fairly strained relationship now their children have all left home, but they are soldiering on – until news reports start to trickle in of mass rat migrations in their area. Soon enough they are under siege from the rodent hordes. Again, Kneale seems to struggle to find things to do with the basic idea, and there are some implausible moments, but as an exercise in both escalation and suggestion (you never actually see the rats) the play is exemplary, and the ending is memorably done.

Another tired old story gets revisited in Buddyboy, the tale of an up-and-coming pornographer who finds himself at odds with the ghost of a super-intelligent dolphin in a haunted aquarium. Martin Shaw plays the merchant of filth in question, very much in serious actor mode (does he have any other?). The premise, as you may gather, is utterly bizarre, and it’s actually quite difficult to tell what the story is actually supposed to be about on a thematic level. The ghost is very much an implied presence, operating through the behaviour of other people. It’s a very odd play – one character opts to drown themself in a bathtub while wrapped in a blanket, presumably because the performer hadn’t signed up to do a nude scene, while at another point there’s an utterly gratuitous moment of T&A from someone who clearly had. In subject matter, style, and obliqueness, nothing remotely like this would be made by any British TV company today.

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Most effective as pure horror, though, is Baby. Simon MacCorkindale and Jane Wymark play a vet and his pregnant wife who move to the countryside, and you could probably have a good go at writing the rest of the plot for yourself. Renovations at their house uncover a grotesque mummified thing bricked up in the wall, and in the days that follow the wife becomes aware of a vague, baleful presence closing in. Explanations as to what’s going on are kept to an absolute minimum, and MacCorkindale and TP McKenna possibly overplay their roles as the arrogant men who ignore Wymark’s misgivings, but as a piece of broody, creeping folk-horror this is extremely effective. Despite all the production limitations, the build-up to the climax is incredibly tense, as almost-subliminal glimpses of something getting closer and closer accumulate. The associated sound effect – half-grunt, half-growl – frequently repeated, becomes genuinely frightening in its own right. There’s a sense in which this plays rather like an episode of Hammer House of Horror – it’s the only episode of Beasts which really does – but the climax is more terrifying (and disgusting) than anything in the later, bigger-budget show.

Even from a scripting point of view, not every episode of Beasts is perfect, but as a whole this is a strong set of plays that says and does interesting things. I’m sure there are sound reasons why this kind of programme isn’t made any more – but I’m equally sure this narrowing of ambition is a great loss to TV.

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