Beasts is a series of six 1976 British television plays by Manx writer Nigel Kneale, unconnected but for a horror theme, made by production company ATV for the ITV network.
In 1976, Nigel Kneale left his position as staff writer at the BBC and made the step across to the ITV network, the commercial, advert-interrupted competition on British television at the time.
Kneale, of course, had made his name as the creator of the Quatermass character who would appear in both film, TV and radio productions but had more recently come off the back of The Stone Tape (1972), a highly revered and fondly remembered television play combining elements of both science fiction and horror.
Something of a coup for the commercial network, Kneale was seemingly given something of a free-reign to express himself across six hour-long episodes, broadcast on Saturday nights, each featuring a different cast and unconnected storylines, save for the fact they all featured humans pitted against a beast of some kind.
In reality, the series was not shown on all regions in the UK and the episodes were shown in different orders depending on where you lived; possibly because the powers at be saw some as stronger than others, possibly as they just wanted shut of it as quickly as possible and quality control went out of the window.
To give the series some kind of perspective, it is interesting to compare the episodes to those of Tales of the Unexpected, another ITV series, running for a far longer period of time (though only in half-hour episodes), written by another lauded writer, Roald Dahl.
Here, though many of the tales were extremely twisted and some even quite disturbing (Royal Jelly starring Timothy West as a beekeeper slowly turning into a bee springs to mind), they retained a certain mischievousness and nose-tapping delight that the writer had strung you along and delivered a triumphant twist to keep you on your toes; Kneale’s Beasts has a far harder streak, with little compassion for the characters he creates and a general feeling, rather like a Thomas Hardy novel, that the people in his tales ultimately have little effect on the environment around them, being mere pawns for fate to decide their destiny, or perhaps more precisely in this case, nature.
Another interesting factor is an almost deathly lack of music – there are next to no cues to alert you to danger or threat, there isn’t even a theme tune. Though shot on video and on an obviously low budget, Kneale writes like his life depends on it; you’d struggle to find another writer of the time so adept at writing huge tracts of dialogue – the plays would work equally well on radio, especially as most of the threats in the stories are rarely actually shown on-screen.
Over forty years on, the series still has some magnificent moments and some stellar (and not so dazzling) performances, which are never less than engaging. Kneale would later write Halloween III: Season of the Witch, 1982, though would withdraw his credit due to interference from Dino De Laurentiis, who insisted on more gore.
Special Offer, broadcast 16 October 1976
Briteway, a sterile, beige supermarket sees the setting for Special Offer, a typically ‘ordinary’ setting for Kneale’s extraordinary tales. Manager, Mr Grimley (Geoffrey Bateman) runs a tight ship, apart from his sleazing over a pretty checkout girl, barely contained contempt of his customers and exasperation at his dopey, frumpy, clumsy worker, Noreen (Pauline Quirke, pre-TV ‘comedy’ Birds of a Feather and David Lynch’s Elephant Man, 1980). Threatened with the sack and bombarded with insults for her ineptness, Noreen begins to sense another presence in the shop which is rattling cans and shaking cereal boxes.
As Grimley’s pursuit of the checkout girl on the tills increases, so do Noreen’s visions, which eventually become so strong that other staff begin to experience them too. Unable to describe exactly what the animal is, Grimley jokes that it must be ‘Briteway Billy, the stores awful yellow mascot (possibly a chipmunk, other suggestions welcomed) – Noreen takes this joke as plain fact. It becomes clear that Noreen is in love with Grimley (unrequited to say the least) and the disturbances in the shop are as a result of her psychic powers; the appearances of Billy become ever more dramatic from gnawed packets of bacon to exploding bottles and earthquakes in the frozen food department. Spurned even after applying her best make-up, Noreen’s powers grow so strong they threaten to endanger all in her path.
Despite the unlikely and even ridiculous set-up, both Bateman and Quirke hold the whole thing together admirably, Bateman in particular completely believable as the bullying, pest of a boss whose grand ideas are stifled by frustration and anger at the world for holding him back. The supermarket is brilliantly tacky, the hand-made signs for mince and onions and own-brand crud being a reminder as to how grey the 70s in Britain could be on a daily basis.
During Barty’s Party – Broadcast 23 October 1976
This episode is particularly remarkable for the fact that it was filmed in one continuous take and in real-time, a testament to two actors best known for their work on television and stage, Anthony Bate and Elizabeth Sellars (also in The Mummy’s Shroud).
In a remote, well-appointed house in deepest Hampshire countryside, Angie Truscott (Sellars) finds herself alone, awaiting the return of her husband, Roger (Bate), whom she has a loveless relationship with, he obsessed with work and business, she with flights of her overactive imagination.
After glimpsing an abandoned yellow sports car out of the window, she begins to hear scratching and scurrying beneath the floorboards. Perhaps overly terrified, she whacks up the volume on the stereo to drown out the noise. Upon his arrival home, Roger is disparaging of her claims they are harbouring rats and the tension between them slowly builds.
A combination of a telephone conversation with work and a report on the radio, via the titular Barty on his unspeakably bad phone-in show, Barty’s Party, reveal that swarms of rats have been seen in their area and have been disrupting transport. As the noises increase, Roger also begins to become frightened and resolves to solve the problem, in lieu of their dog who has scarpered, by gassing them with homemade chlorine (good thinking, Rog).
The conclusion is frenetic with the DJ desperately appealing to listeners who may know where they are (their plight is highlighted by the fact he has misheard her name as ‘Prescott’) so he can send help and the rats laying siege to their cosy dwelling. Envisaged as his take on Hitchcock’s The Birds, Kneale delivers oodles of atmosphere and fear through sound alone, an almost unthinkable device for television now.
Buddy Boy – Broadcast 30 October 1976
Comfortably the weakest episode, ‘Buddy Boy’ at least succeeds in sheer ludicrousness. Dave (Martin Shaw from TVs The Professionals) is an ambitious businessman, working below the mainstream and using rather gangster-like methods to get his own way.
As the owner of a smut cinema, he naturally wants to expand his burgeoning empire by buying a derelict dolphinarium (Finnyland! Finnyland!) and turning it into a ‘classy’… two-screen movie cinema (‘we could sell hamburgers’, Dave declares, no doubt thinking of a name for his venture and looking slinty-eyed at the letter ‘i’ in Finnyland).
The owner of the building is holding out for a good price but the deal is put on the rocks by the appearance of a girl, Lucy (Pamela Moiseiwitsch from Cry of the Banshee) seemingly living in the building. She waxes lyrical about the wonderful Buddy Boy, a beyond talented dolphin who the owner blames for killing his collection of swimming mammals via some undeclared disease, whilst the suspicion is that he died from maltreatment.
Dave realises he now holds the upper hand in the deal, the seller spooked by the mention of the dolphin and his ‘imagined’ hearing of his cry. Lucy begs Dave not to change the dolphinarium as Buddy Boy still lives there; Dave considers this, momentarily and offers her a job in one of his ‘films’. Moving into the abandoned house of the seller who runs to the hills, still haunted by the sound of Buddy Boy, Dave and Lucy and up in bed but Lucy is lured, mysteriously to the bathroom where she hears a familiar sound…
To clarify, a man wants to buy dolphinarium to turn it into the grot shop but it’s haunted by a dolphin – what’s not to like!? Well, the acting is weak across the board and there’s no amount of excellent writing that can make a plot like this work. The ending is open to interpretation, should you not eagerly skip to the next episode, eager to eradicate the memory. Interestingly, the only episode with any music.
Baby – Broadcast 6 November 1976
The best-loved of all the episodes, this kept many a child awake at night; it still has the power to frighten. Young vet, Peter Gilkes (a roaring Simon MacCorkindale (Jaws 3D, 13 Hrs) has moved to the country and joined old soak of a vet Dick Pummery (T.P. McKenna from The Beast in the Cellar and Straw Dogs).
His pregnant wife, Jo (Jane Wymark), is less impressed, her husband’s exuberant tales of how amazing Dick is in contrast to her more down-to-earth issues with the building work going on in their new house, their baby and a runaway cat. Peter opts to have a go at some DIY and in the absence of the builders starts to knock part of an interior wall down. Within a cavity, he finds a large, sealed clay pot and sets to work opening it (‘fetch the kitchen tongs!’)
Within they find the possibly ancient mummified remains of an unidentifiable creature. Goaded by the builders who urge her to get rid of the thing, Jo wants it out of the house as soon as possible. It is revealed that the fields around their house have previously seen the death of many animals and it now lies barren. Peter and Dick are much more scientific in their approach and decide an autopsy is required to satiate their curious minds.
After Jo attempts to burn it, Peter locks it in a cupboard in their nursery-to-be and pretends he has thrown it away. The tension is ramped up as Dick brings his wife over for drinks and Jo and Peter’s relationship continues to be further stretched; the viewer, of course, simply wants to find out what the ‘thing’ is but Kneale keeps you hanging on for an eternity.
The ‘reveal’ is, of course, a disappointment but the build-up is second to none – Jo’s increasing hysteria and Dick and Peter’s bullish obliviousness are great devices. The lack of music highlights to remoteness of both the area and the people, witchcraft and the ways of the land outlasting both man and beast.
What Big Eyes – Broadcast 13 November 1976
Young, hyper-efficient RSPCA Inspector, Bob Curry (Michael Kitchen from Bond films Goldeneye and The World is Not Enough and the excellent Unman, Wittering and Zigo) descends on Duggie Jebb’s (Bill Dean) animal export business and wastes no time in checking his books, believing him to be not only treating the animals inhumanely but sending them to unauthorised places. He quickly notices that wolves have been sent to a local pet shop and warns Duggie he’ll have to do much better than to try and cover his tracks by making up such an unlikely ruse.
Eager to tick all the boxes, he visits the homely pet shop and double-checks with the timid shopkeeper, Florence (Madge Ryan, I Start Counting, Clockwork Orange), just in case. She surprisingly acknowledges that they did indeed buy wolves and that she is unable to tell the inspector any more and that he must speak to her aged father, Leo Raymount (acting great Patrick Magee, Masque of the Red Death to Tales from the Crypt).
A crackpot scientist, Leo informs Curry that he has been purchasing the wolves as part of his life-long genetic experiments in lycanthropy. Wide-eyed, Leo informs Curry that the fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood is nothing but confirmation of werwolves, granny being a wolf and old woman’s clothing. His vivisection of wolves and injection of serum have neared their conclusion and he and Florence announce that the time is nigh for their harnessing of nature to be revealed. Magee is sensational with the best acting display of the series; credit to Kitchen, excellent as a right-headed but out of his depth youngster and Dean and Ryan, both playing their roles with great believability. The ending is a real surprise, possibly to ITV’s dismay.
The Dummy – Broadcast 20 November 1976
The final episode sees Clyde Boyd (Bernard Horsfall) playing an actor with a wrecked marriage and an increasingly wrecked liver, who makes his living playing The Dummy, a lumbering, crudely-made B-movie monster, somewhere between Godzilla, Gorgo and a pantomime horse on two legs.
Filming the latest in an endless line of films featuring the monster, in a suspiciously Hammer-like setting, Clyde reaches a breaking point when he realises his co-star is none other than the man who ran off with his wife, Peter (played by a superbly smug, gloating Simon Oates). Unwittingly, the film’s producer, Bunny (TV mainstay, Clive Swift) gives him some motivation to continue and asks him to really live the part.
In his alcohol-fuelled madness, Clyde does indeed inhabit Dummy and kills a man onset. In a brilliant scene, their one-star actor, Sir Ramsey, pokes his head out of his dressing room complaining of the noise. Upon hearing of a man’s death and to clear the set he declares ‘dead? Good gracious, that’s bad luck’. Ramsey is played by Hammer regular Thorley Walters, lending the episode some rare wit.
The inept police surround the set but inevitably it’s his nemesis who he ends up being faced with in the dramatic finale. Perhaps rather too full of in-jokes, jibes and sideswipes at the industry for a mass audience to really enjoy, the episode is still thoroughly enjoyable and, even with the biggest cast show British television at its most daring and creative.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA