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Posts Tagged ‘ITV’

Every time I think the internet has lost its capacity to startle me, something comes along to – well, startle me. The nature of the world’s most popular video sharing website being what it is, I’m never especially surprised to find obscure old movies posted there in its quiet corners – were this not the case, I might never have seen The Deadly Mantis or Night of the Lepus. Even the least distinguished films have a habit of turning up on budget DVD, such is the nature of the medium, but when it comes to old TV shows… well, even today I would imagine there are hundreds of thousands of hours of material which has never been licensed for commercial release; there are whole series which have slipped out of the collective memory. For example, I’d never heard of an ITV play strand entitled Against the Crowd, which apparently ran for one series in 1975 – until I came across a complete episode available for viewing. How did this even happen?!

Of course, it turns out that my initial surprise may have been a bit premature, for the episode in question has the unique distinction: unlike the rest of the run, it has enjoyed a DVD release, having been included as a special feature on the box set of Beasts when that came out. This, I suspect, is the source of the copy which is available to watch. The reason Murrain got added to Beasts is that it was written by Nigel Kneale, effectively acting as an unofficial pilot for the later series, and I suppose part of my surprise at discovering this play is that I thought I was familiar with virtually everything Kneale wrote for TV, certainly in the 1960s and 1970s.

Certainly Murrain resembles an episode of Beasts, clearly being made on a low budget – shot on videotape and on location. The play is set somewhere in the north of England. David Simeon (one of those actors who isn’t famous by any stretch of the imagination, but is still one of those faces you kind of recognise if you’re anything like me) plays Alan Crich, an idealistic young veterinary officer with the local council, who as the story begins arrives at the pig farm of a man named Beeley (Bernard Lee, best known for appearing in the first dozen or so Bond films). Beeley’s pigs are suffering from an unidentified sickness which Crich’s ministrations have so far been unable to cure; Beeley is not impressed, to put it mildly, and the atmosphere between the two men is soon tense.

Then Beeley announces he’s going to show Crich a few other points of interest, and marches him off to where the pipeline drawing from the local spring has completely dried up, for no apparent reason. Finally, Crich is taken to the local shop, where the owner’s child is also ill, again with an unidentified sickness. Crich can’t make out what Beeley and his men are driving at until they make it absolutely clear to him: it is their sincere belief that the old woman who lives up the hill is a witch, and has placed what they refer to as a murrain (in other words, a curse) on the pigs and other things.

So far in the play, Kneale has been working diligently to draw the contrasts between Crich and Beeley (who do most of the talking between them) – Crich is young, well-spoken, college-educated, polite, while Beeley is older, rough around the edges, practical. What follows at this point is a decent enough articulation of differing views when it comes to witchcraft and the supernatural, with Beeley rehearsing the argument that what may seem weird and miraculous now could easily be explained by science at some point in the future, and that Crich has no right to dismiss their concerns out of hand. But Crich just dismisses their concerns out of hand, thus – you would think – setting him up for a touch of nemesis before the end of the play.

The locals want Crich to visit the supposed witch (played by Una Brandon-Hill – the woman is supposedly ‘very old’ but Brandon-Hill was under sixty at the time) and perform a ritual that will break her power over them. He makes the visit, but refuses to play exorcist, and instead finds what he expects to find – an old, lonely, slightly pathetic woman, who is apparently being bullied by her neighbours. He resolves to make amends…

There’s very little wrong with the narrative carpentry in Murrain, except for the fact that it becomes very obvious early on just how the thing is going to play out: Crich is so openly contemptuous of the superstitions of Beeley and the others that the only way this can possibly end is for there to be just a suggestion that the villagers have been right all along, and he has been unwittingly assisting the forces of darkness. And so it proves, but if anything Kneale plays it too safe, as the ending is just a bit flat. The only point of ambiguity is that of whether the old woman genuinely does have access to some kind of Power with a capital P, or whether she and the other locals share the same delusion (the special effects budget of Murrain is approximately no-money-whatsoever, so everything is left very ambiguous).

Of course, this being a Nigel Kneale script, Murrain is also notable for its thorough-going, indiscriminate misanthropy. As I may well have said in the past, Nigel Kneale doesn’t have prejudices – he treats everyone with equal disdain and contempt, whether that’s for being idealistic and naïve, or ignorant and crude. This is a fairly bleak play in every respect, but it’s also a very solidly written one, let down slightly by its predictability and also by the low production values involved. There’s obviously a sort of family resemblance to Beasts, but one suspects that series came about more due to Kneale’s reputation than because of the quality of this particular play.

Watching Murrain now, it isn’t an outstanding piece of work in any respect, but it still represents something that we have lost in modern TV – who does low-budget single dramas any more? No-one at all in the UK, not on free to air TV at least. There is no place for this kind of drama any more, and I can’t help thinking that’s a shame.

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In the Earth Year 1979, one thing that everyone involved in commissioning films and TV series was absolutely certain of was that science fiction and fantasy had suddenly become very, very popular over the previous couple of years. As producing popular movies and shows is basically part of the job description for these people, the inevitable result was the late-seventies boom in SF and fantasy, which resulted in a vast number of frankly variable new projects hitting screens both large and small. Some of these were very good, many of them were extremely poor, and a few of them are clearly the work of people with only the vaguest ideas about what science fiction is.

Which brings us to the 1979 version of Quatermass, written (of course) by Nigel Kneale and directed by Piers Haggard (who had previously been in charge of the cult folk horror movie Blood on Satan’s Claw, which has a few very vague similarities to this). Also known as Quatermass IV and The Quatermass Conclusion, this had started life as a project for the BBC some years earlier, which progressed as far as some initial special effects filming before the corporation had second thoughts about the tone and expense of the undertaking. It is understandable why the commercial network ITV would want to take over a prestigious project by a celebrated screenwriter, especially given the fact that it was the late 70s and this is ostensibly an SF show, but watching the end result you can’t help but wonder if the BBC weren’t right in the first place.

 

The proper big movie star John Mills plays Professor Q. The story has a near-future setting which, nearly 40 years on, inevitably feels rather quaint: there are various not-very-subtle references to King Charles being on the throne, but the USSR is still a going concern. Things have not changed for the better, however – ‘in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the whole world seemed to sicken,’ intones the opening monologue of the story. Things seem pre-apocalyptic, if not actually apocalyptic, from the word go, with law and order breaking down in the UK, dead bodies in the streets, armed gangs on the rampage, and regular power cuts. (Some of which must have seemed very familiar to a country which had recently experienced the rise of punk rock and the Winter of Discontent.)

With the British Rocket Group apparently disbanded (there are vague allusions to the events of the previous three Quatermass serials), Quatermass has been living in seclusion in Scotland, and is shocked when he returns to London, ostensibly to appear on a live broadcast covering a joint Russian-American space mission. Practically the first thing that happens to him is an attempted mugging, from which he is rescued by Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale), a radio astronomer booked for the same show. Uncompromising as ever, Quatermass goes on live TV and dismisses the mission as an empty display from two diseased superpowers that is bound to end in disaster, before revealing why he’s really decided to appear: his teenaged granddaughter has disappeared and he is desperate to find her. Naturally, he is yanked off the air, but moments later something mysteriously causes the spacecraft to disintegrate in orbit, killing all the crew…

Finding his suspiciously-accurate prophecy of doom has made him a person of interest to the authorities, Quatermass takes refuge with Kapp and his wife (Barbara Kellermann) at their bodged-together radio telescope installation in the countryside. On the way he and Kapp encounter members of a mystical youth cult, the Planet People, who speak of being transported to another world by mysterious forces. Kapp is scornful of this anti-intellectualism, but Quatermass is not entirely unsympathetic and decides to visit the local stone circle which the Planet People are congregating at.

While he and the Kapps are there, however, something rather unexpected happens: a blinding column of light descends from the sky, striking the circle and the hundreds of cult members assembled there, and when it withdraws only an ashy detritus remains of them. Other Planet People believe that the worthy have been transported to another world – but Quatermass and Kapp draw a different conclusion, that the young people have been obliterated. It emerges that similar visitations have been happening around the world, the first of which coincided with the destruction of the space mission.

Quatermass slowly draws the threads together and realises what is happening: an implacable alien force which first visited Earth five thousand years previously has returned and is harvesting the youth of the human race, drawing them to assembly points (many of them marked by stone circles and the like) and then vaporising them. Quatermass speculates that this is just some kind of machine, not an actual sentience, and that it is functioning on behalf of ‘unimaginable beings’ who have a taste for human protein, and nothing on screen contradicts him, naturally. But can anything be done to stop the slaughter of the human race?

I imagine that for many modern viewers, the first thing that will strike them about Quatermass is the extent to which it clearly appears to have inspired the Torchwood mini-series Children of Earth, because both programmes have basically the same plot – alien forces return to Earth intent on devouring, one way or another, the youth of the planet. In both cases the response of the authorities leaves much to be desired, and it falls to the outspoken outsider to see what needs to be done and make the necessary terrible sacrifice. That said, while Children of Earth is a pretty bleak element of the larger franchise of which it is a part, it is still in many ways a musical comedy version of the story, compared to Quatermass – many years ago I met someone who had it on VHS, and his opinion was that it was ‘the most depressing thing you will ever see’.

He kind of had a point. Most late-seventies SF, both on TV and in the cinema, followed very much in the wake of George Lucas’ first stellar conflict movie, which after all inaugurated the SF and fantasy boom to begin with – swashbuckling action, cute robots, and ray gun battles were very nearly de rigeur. Quatermass has no truck with this, being firmly ensconced in the ‘bloody miserable’ tradition of British SF. And it’s a very particular kind of miserabilism, too: on some level the story is about a clash between science and anti-intellectualism (Kneale seems to have had an almost superstitious dread of the latter – there are several scenes in which previously-sensible characters encounter the Planet People and somehow become ‘infected’ with their New Age beliefs, abandoning their former friends and responsibilities), but it’s also about the conflict between youth and age.

Quatermass seems to be in his seventies in this story (Mills was 71 at the time), but Kneale was only in his late fifties when it was broadcast, and considerably younger when the project was originally conceived. So it is a little disconcerting that this should feel so much like an old man’s wail of rage and despair against a changing world. This is very Daily Mail SF: everything is getting worse and worse, society is heading for collapse, football hooliganism is a blight on society, young people don’t respect their elders and have all kinds of ridiculous ideas, the telly is filled with sex and violence. We tend to think of SF as an inherently youthful and progressive genre: but this is SF in reactionary mode, the generation gap viewed from the senior side – the central metaphor being that young people seem alien to their elders because they are indeed subject to some extraterrestrial influence that older and wiser heads are immune to.

Naturally, it falls to Quatermass and a picked team of elderly boffins to resolve the crisis (young people can’t be trusted, due to their susceptibility to the alien ‘fluence) – making tea and sandwiches for everyone is Ethel from EastEnders (there are quite a few familiar faces in supporting roles here – Toyah Willcox pops up as a Planet Person, Brenda Fricker plays one of Kapp’s team, Brian Croucher appears as a cop). Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong or necessarily stupid about this as a piece of storytelling, it’s just so very peculiar and at odds with how TV SF usually operates that you almost can’t help reacting negatively to it – the doomy bleakness of the whole thing doesn’t help much, either.

This is not to say the storytelling is perfect – the manner in which Kneale kills off both the leading female characters can’t help but feel rather arbitrary, while he can’t help letting his interest in Judaism (a feature of many later scripts) show, to no very obvious purpose. But on the whole this is a solid story, lavishly realised for the most part – although the model work on the spacecraft sequences is really quite poor. The writer, typically generous to his collaborators, apparently felt that Mills lacked the authority to play Quatermass, and that MacCorkindale was ‘very good at playing an idiot’, but all the performances in this series seem perfectly acceptable to me.

It’s not the acting that sticks with you after watching Quatermass, anyway, nor even much of the story: what stays are a few images and a general sense of the all-consuming mood of despair and hopelessness which suffuses the story from start to (very nearly) finish. This is well-achieved and sustained, but not particularly easy or relaxing to watch. This is SF, but not escapism; not a cautionary tale about how things could be worse in the future, but a jeremiad about how bad they are now. It’s competently made, but inevitably depressing: that’s really the point of it. It’s watchable, and occasionally impressive, but really difficult to warm to or genuinely like.

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Well, now, here’s a slightly odd coincidence – just the other day I was writing about the film career of the Hungarian-British director Peter Sasdy, and (in a couple of quite separate venues) about horror films with the disjointed, compelling logic of a bad dream. And then last night I stuck on a random DVD, solely for pleasure, and it turned out to be a bad-dream horror story directed by Peter Sasdy. Either my subconscious mind is rather more on the ball than its conscious equivalent, or a cry of ‘Whoo, spooky!’ is justified.

The tale in question was an episode of Hammer House of Horror, a 1980 anthology series which was very nearly the final gasp of the original incarnation of the legendary British production company. I would never argue that this is either a great TV show or a real example of what makes real Hammer horror movies so special – the TV budget means that the episodes are all set in contemporary times, making it feel somewhat more like an Amicus production, while the desire to sell the show to a US network means the horror and exploitation elements are too often watered down – but quite a few of the famous Hammer names are involved in various capacities, such as Sasdy in this instance.

This episode is entitled Rude Awakening, written by Gerald Savory, and its particular Amicus resemblance is somewhat heightened by the fact it stars that legend amongst British character actors, Denholm Elliott (he had previously played a hack horror writer in The House that Dripped Blood and one of the victims of Tom Baker’s voodoo paintbrush in Vault of Horror, both for Amicus). This is, as far as I’m aware, the only conjunction of Hammer and Denholm Elliott, but the result is one of the series’ more striking episodes.

Elliott plays Norman Shenley, a middle-aged provincial estate-agent whom the actor invests with all the understated seediness he often brought to this kind of part – although calling it understated may be stretching a point, as virtually the first thing we see Norman do is start letching over and groping his secretary, Lolly (Lucy Gutteridge). Norman is having an affair with Lolly, of course, although there is the slight problem that his wife (Pat Heywood) refuses to grant him the divorce he so desperately wants.

Anyway: a man named Rayburn (James Laurenson) appears, claiming to be the executor of a will with a large country house to be disposed of. He would quite like Norman to take a look at the place in his professional capacity, and our man cheerfully agrees. His enthusiasm is only slightly dented when the manor turns out to be a half-decrepit, cobweb-festooned old pile, complete with spooky doors that open seemingly by themselves and wall-to-wall suits of armour. But then a disembodied voice berates Norman for the murder of his wife, and the armour creaks into life to exact retribution on the hapless estate agent…

Who wakes up in a panic, rather annoying his wife in the process. It was all just a bad dream, apparently – but so realistic! Norman can’t get over it, talking to his wife about, and Lolly when he goes in to the office. He’s so obsessed with his odd nocturnal experience that Lolly suggests he drive out to see if the country house really exists. Discovering that he still has the map given to him by Rayburn in his pocket (somehow!), Norman finds the house is not there, but a phone box is. He almost dies when the box threatens to combust around him, spying a tramp who resembles Rayburn while doing so, but then enjoys a somewhat torrid interlude with Lolly (still in the phone box)…

Only to wake up yet again, back in bed with his unimpressed missus. One of the bricks you could throw at Rude Awakening is that the structure of the story becomes rather predictable as the episode progresses – Norman wakes up from his latest nightmare, restarts the day in question, only for events to go off at some odd tangent or other, normally resulting in him meeting an outlandish sticky end. The sticky ends get progressively more outlandish in the course of the episode – never mind being assaulted by animated suits of armour, Norman finds himself executed by undead domestic staff, almost killed when the building he’s in is demolished around him, and (most surreal of all) waking up midway through brain surgery to find himself dead on the operating table.

All good fun, if you like weird, not-especially-horrific horror, but the problem is really that it builds the viewer’s expectations of something really spectacularly surreal at the climax of the episode, and unfortunately it just doesn’t happen. The conclusion is reasonably clever, though, as is the way the script combines several different story types – Rude Awakening goes for, and pretty much achieves the triple by including elements of a recurring nightmare story, a precognitive dream story, and a can’t-tell-dream-from-reality story. It’s clear from early on that something fishy is afoot – Norman doesn’t seem at all surprised to find a dream artefact in his pocket while he’s supposedly awake, to say nothing of the fact that he doesn’t notice Lolly appearing in a different provocative guise in each new iteration of the story – but the resolution, when it comes, is relatively understated. It may be that it is in fact supposed to be blackly comic – after so many fake demises, Norman ends up assuming he’s asleep, which proves to be a serious mistake – but the script is not quite sharp enough for the results to be particularly amusing.

That said, there is, of course, a masterly performance from Denholm Elliott to enjoy, which is the episode’s main treat. Ineffectual and/or seedy men were really his speciality, usually in a supporting capacity, and he is, it almost goes without saying, on fine form here. He keeps you watching even after it’s become quite clear how the episode’s going to function, even if not where it’s going. And Sasdy has fun with the more surreal elements of the story, which are quite different from the stuff of the relatively grounded feature films he made for Hammer. Rude Awakening probably counts as only a minor item on the CV of both men, but it brings a certain style of surreal British horror to the small screen reasonably effectively.

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It goes without saying that the new Thunderbirds (aka Thunderbirds Are Go) has been made for a fresh, young audience, unencumbered by nostalgia for the original series – but should it, though? (Go without saying, I mean.) After all, when I went to a revival of the classic Gerry Anderson puppet shows last year, I was one of the younger people there, and who exactly was it who funded a new attempt at the ‘lost’ Anderson show Firestorm on Kickstarter in record time? I doubt it was the very young audience ITV appears to be gunning for.

Nevertheless, the kids are whom ITV clearly have in their sights as far as the new show is concerned, this even extending to putting first-run episodes on at 8am rather than at a more family-friendly time. Well, we’ll see: fan outcry wasn’t enough to make them give New Captain Scarlet a proper timeslot ten years ago, and I doubt it will here, either. I see they have ordered another run of episodes already (and did so well before the series even debuted). Can’t argue with confident people.

Anyway, what are we to make of the new show? Having been a fan of the original series for nigh-on 35 years it is obviously difficult for me to be properly objective about it (especially when Gerry Anderson himself gets only a very cursory credit in the end titles). I suppose the best thing to do is to look at the changes which have been made and see what they in turn tell us about how the world has moved on in the last 50 years.

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The most obvious difference, perhaps, is simply in the medium of the thing: original Thunderbirds was a mixture of (super)marionettes and physical modelwork, while new Thunderbirds has dumped the puppets in favour of CGI animation. The least one can say is that this results in a show with a very distinct (less charitable people might say ‘odd’) aesthetic, especially when CGI elements are inserted into scenes with physical models.

One might wonder why they didn’t just switch to full CGI (as New Captain Scarlet did), but I suppose the half-and-half decision is justified by the modelwork of the Thunderbirds themselves, which is frequently stunningly beautiful (and, to be honest, the thing which really kept me watching the first episode). The subtly-modified industrial aesthetic of the machines is, I suppose, the best compromise possible between the original designs and what’s credible nowadays. Set against this, I feel moved to comment on just how dreadful some of the special effects were, particularly any scene featuring FAB1 and the ‘English countryside’, which strongly brought to mind episodes of Postman Pat.

Of course, the main reason why the classic Anderson shows were so hardware-intensive was because of the limitations inherent in the use of puppets as characters: the response was to stick the puppets in rockets or subs or tanks and let the machinery carry the plot. New Thunderbirds‘ CGI characters are more flexible, and as a result it seemed to me that the Tracy boys were taking a more athletic approach to rescuing in the opening installment.

The big deal about Thunderbirds, not to mention the other shows from the same stable, was that it was the result of steely determination on the part of a film-maker forced to work in a medium he despised, but doing his damnedest to compromise as little as possible. As a result, old Thunderbirds looked like nothing else on TV in terms of its production values, and some of the scripts were not without elements aimed squarely over the kids’ heads. I didn’t see much sign of that in the new show – then again, kids TV is more sophisticated now anyway – and that garish, cartoony aesthetic didn’t really win me over, either.

I’m afraid the same goes for Ring of Fire‘s plot. It obviously remains to be seen how representative this episode is of the series as a whole, but it was a bit frantic. Will they feel obliged to use all five (sorry, six) Thunderbirds in every episode? That could result in some fairly tortuous plotting. And – this will sound strange – I was sort of disappointed that the plot actually hung together and made sense, more or less, being completely bereft of the more lunatic elements that were such an integral part of the products of the Anderson script system.

To be honest, I got an ominous whiff of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek from the series opener: permit me to explain why. This isn’t a completely from-scratch relaunch of the series, as the script takes it for granted that the audience already knows who everybody was, not to mention the nature of International Rescue and its mission statement. (The glorious pre-credits hero shot of Thunderbird 2 would probably have a lot less impact on a complete newby.) The outfit has clearly been operating for some time before the series begins, and the characters have already acquired a bit of new backstory, which is not the same as that in the original show (that was set in 2065, five years after the date given here). In short, the series is trading heavily on audience knowledge of and affection for Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, but using this to tell its own rather different set of stories. The makers eat their cake – but, as if by magic, they still seem to have it.

One of the incidental pleasures of hanging around certain SF-themed websites with a particular kind of militant agenda is the comments you often see. Someone actually grumbled that the Tracy brothers (that’s ‘brothers’ as in ‘male relatives sharing the same parents’) were not more diverse when it came to their gender or ethnicity. I hope the decision to give Tin Tin – sorry, Kayo – a more engaged, (sigh) kick-ass role, not to mention her own Thunderbird, will keep the Diversity Police happy. I don’t really have a problem with it. Making Brains Asian, on the other hand troubles me a little: not because I have a problem with a non-white character being a technical genius, but because I think it almost turns him into the dubious stereotype of the effete, wobble-headed Asian wimp. Naturally – I say ‘naturally’ – one of the original show’s more prominently non-white characters, the Hood, has become rather more ethnically anonymous in the new series. Diversity is a good thing, of course, but not to the point that you can have non-white villains any more. Hmmm.

All of this is fairly small potatoes compared to my biggest grumble with the series, namely: where the hell is Jeff? Without the Tracy patriarch, International Rescue just feels like a ship without a captain. Who’s in charge, anyway? It doesn’t seem to be Scott. Is it actually John? (Gerry Anderson will be spinning in his grave like a lathe.) Is the organisation some kind of free-form collective nowadays? Hmmph. Clearly, parental authority is not where the kids are at these days, and if that doesn’t tell you a lot about cultural differences between 1965 and 2015, nothing will.

Despite all this, the new show was clearing working quite hard to keep the long-term fanbase on board, with little references like Dr Meddings’ name, a casual mention of Thunderbird 1’s MIDAS system, the use of actual footage from Stingray, and – perhaps a bit tenuous, this – one model design seemingly being influenced by the iconic Eagle transporter from Space: 1999. The quality of some of the modelwork, along with the pleasure of spotting these little references, is just about enough to make me tune in again for the second episode, but I strongly doubt this is a series anyone will have very strong memories of even in ten years time, let alone fifty.

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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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I’ve resisted the temptation to post week-by-week reviews of the series of Primeval that’s just wrapped up on ITV. This is partly because, while it’s a good show, it’s not quite in the first rank, and partly because I’d probably have ended up saying the same things every time. My impression after the first episode, as you may recall, was that the series was showing ominous signs of having jumped the shark during its unplanned hiatus from our screens. Did the rest of the run do anything to shake this?
 
Well, a little. It was somewhat obvious that a budget cut had occurred, although the production’s move to Ireland was by no means obvious. Occasionally, short-cuts in the special effects budget were a little blatant – fight sequences where the human performer and the beastie were both filmed in close up, and never in the same shot – but this was more than compensated for later in the run. I wasn’t quite sure of what to make of the fact that the creature focus this series was on prehistoric reptiles more than ever before (and no future-creatures at all). Possibly this was a marketing decision and this is now A Show About Dinosaurs.

This series’s main problem was the one I outlined in my thoughts on the first episode, however: the loss of several major characters and the need to replace them in a hurry. Recipient of the rawest deal here was Ruth Kearney, who worked wonders with a character who was little more than a cipher, her most noticeable characteristic being a crush on Boring Old Becker. Most regrettable was the absence of Jason Flemyng, who always brought a lovely spiky energy to the show – in comparison, Ciaran McMenamin always seemed a little too restrained. And while both Cutter and Quinn were given a strong character background on their first appearances, Anderson wasn’t – and the revelation of his real agenda was arguably left too late in the run. (Apparently some background on Matt Anderson and something approaching an introduction was provided via webisode. If so, I am not impressed.)

 

From left to right: underestimated, undervalued, underwritten, unbearably dull and underused.

With the ongoing storyline with Helen Cutter concluded, the whole series seemed at times to be hunting around for a new direction, with various ongoing elements appearing from episode to episode, none of them in a particularly arresting manner. The truth – that, for the most part, they were either connected to each other or to previous storylines – was kept back for an extremely busy final episode with almost too much going on in it. A little more drip-feeding of clues and connections wouldn’t have gone amiss – characters whose secrets we know, or who are trying to solve particular mysteries, can be engaging. Characters we don’t know that well wandering around being enigmatic is just a bit tedious.

The good things about this series were mainly holdovers from earlier ones: as I’ve said before, Andrew-Lee Potts and Hannah Spearitt are now the core of this show and were consistently engaging throughout, as was Ben Miller (who seemed to get rather less screen-time than usual this year). Some sort of mention, if only for being so very easy on the eye, must go to Ruth Bradley – hopefully we haven’t seen the last of her or her character.

The individual episodes were on the whole okay, although the lack of variety in this year’s creatures didn’t help to make them stand out from one another. Episode four managed to confound my expectations by having a teenage girl not rescued by the team and horribly slaughtered by a beastie – a bold move, but rather incongruous given the mainstream audience this show’s still theoretically pitching for.

I say ‘theoretically’ – in addition to apparently doing some key storytelling via supplementary internet material, this series also seemed to be pitching to its fanbase with the return of a few old characters, some more prominent than others. It was obviously nice to see Lucy Brown again, but she was hardly vital to the plot of episode six (inevitably memories of the Torchwood episode Something Borrowed crowded my brain, given the premise). Jason Flemyng’s eventual reappearance was the making of the series finale in all sorts of ways. The ongoing storylines genuinely seemed to be progressing for the first time all series, there was a definite sense of closure to a couple of them, and Boring Old Becker got repeatedly tasered: it was the best of a fairly indifferent bunch.

Hopefully it bodes well for the upcoming final series, because everything now seems a bit clearer. We know what Matt Anderson’s agenda is, we know what’s happened to all the other main characters (well, the fate of Sarah Page remains a little vague, but we know enough to make a guess), and above all we know who the new main villain of the series really is. With the decks thus cleared, hopefully the final set of episodes can display some of the wit and deftness and invention which distinguished the earlier seasons.

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Crikey, it’s only the Second of Jan and already we’re enjoying brand new realms of stupidity courtesy of the nation’s TV program planners. I refer, of course, to the crack lemurs employed by ITV and Channel 4 who, brilliantly, decided to schedule the network premieres of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk at exactly the same time.

This is outstanding because, of course, both these movies appeal to exactly the same audience. But what makes it particularly special is that not only are they both from the same studio, but they also have many of the same creative personnel even down to members of the cast: in a possibly unprecedented feat, for a few seconds today Robert Downey Jr. was appearing as the same character in two different films on different networks.

Artist's impression of the ITV and Channel 4 schedules.

However, this run of form did not stop there, as the ITV guys have pioneered a strange and rather astonishing new variant on censorship. Regular censorship, of which I am not a great fan, generally consists of hacking bits out of films to make them less overtly violent or sexual. Much to my amazement, The Incredible Hulk was actually edited to make it look more violent and sexiful than was originally the case.

For instance – in the version I saw at the cinema, the Hulk kicks Tim Roth’s character, who flies back about fifty feet and splats into a tree. In the ITV version, you see the big guy start to swing his leg, then there’s the crunching noise of Roth hitting the tree and a crumpled limb flopping into shot. The original is kinetic and overblown in that unique Louis Leterrier way, but not actually nasty – the ITV cut just makes it look like the Hulk’s stomped him into paste.

Moving on to sex (how infrequently I get to use those words in that order), in the theatrical release Ed Norton and Liv Tyler rekindle their old romance, but are forced to abandon things mid-foreplay as Norton’s heart-rate is becoming dangerously elevated and he’s about to turn green and level the place. It’s a poignant moment (and illustrates yet another drawback to being the Hulk). Now, I thought the foreplay was very mild, but still enough to get ITV flustered – they’ve snipped everything after their initial kiss. So a scene of which the original point was that they don’t have sex has been re-edited to imply that they do. Good work at maintaining the moral standards of the nation, guys.

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