Posted by: Nick Walters | November 4, 2009

Beasts

BEASTS was an anthology of six hour-long dramas shown around the ITV regions in the autumn of 1976 and loosely based around the concept of modern man’s relationship with the primal, dark forces of nature, a favourite theme of Kneale’s.  The “beasts” themselves were rarely if ever seen, the focus instead being on the characters and their reactions to events. Shot on video with minimal music and effects, these are essentially “plays for television” and, though slow by today’s standards, they remain some of the most disturbing, terrifying programmes ever broadcast.

The first story (I’m going by the production order that the DVD follows, as the episodes were shown out of order around the various ITV regions), is Baby, in which a young vet played by Simon “Manimal” McCorkindale and his pregnant wife move to a house in the country, where they discover… something… walled up in the kitchen. This discovery leads to the gradual revelation of an ancient curse. It’s all done very subtly, with clues dropped here and there, and you are left to piece together exactly what it is that is behind everything, which is even more terrifying as your imagination is allowed free rein. Norman Jones (Hieronymous from Doctor Who: The Masque of Mandragora) pops up as a comedy yokel, and there’s an excellent cameo by T.P. McKenna as the whiskey-loving senior country vet which provides some much-needed light relief – though even his involvement furthers the plot; there are several twists and turns to the tale which you only appreciate after seeing Baby a couple of times. Jo Wymark plays the pregnant young wife who is the only one who truly senses the evil at work and it is an amazing performance, you are with her all the way right up until the FUCKING TERRIFYING ENDING. I’ll say no more about it other than the first time I saw it I had to watch 2 episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm to calm me down, and that people who saw it when they were children had nightmares for MONTHS afterwards. I’ll leave the last words to none other than Russell T Davies:

[Baby is] still the most frightening thing I have ever seen – it’s doom-laden from the start, and the misery and fear escalates until there’s no escape. It’s the most disgusting piece of television I’ve ever seen.

Buddyboy is next, and, on paper, it sounds risible: the spirit of a dolphin – the eponymous Buddyboy – haunts a derelict dolphinarium which a sex entrepreneur played by a pre-Professionals Martin Shaw wants to turn into a porno theatre.  Try pitching that nowadays! It is, however, an unusual and highly original piece of drama, with extremely dark undertones. Buddyboy himself is never seen but his presence is indicated by sinister clicks and whistles and the occasional, alarming crescendo of pipes, horns and drums. Kneale has done his research and drawn some disturbing conclusions about dolphins which form the explanation of the paranormal element of the story. Shaw’s seedy character, in his wheelings and dealings to obtain the dolphinarium at the cheapest price possible, deals with the terrified owner, Hubbard, who wants to get shot of the place ASAP for a grim reason that becomes horribly clear, and gets involved with Lucy, a rather simple girl, who befriended Buddyboy and still hangs around the abandoned pool. It’s never really revealed whether Lucy is just simple or mentally retarded; I think she’s meant to represent innocence and purity as opposed to Shaw’s character, who is truly vile; a manipulative, sadistic, money-motivated user of people, and a great performance from Shaw. Even though you hate him you can see why he acts the way he does, and even sympathise with his no-nonsense attitude. We’re on his side when he shows his loathing of the cruel, incompetent Hubbard; but the parallels with dolphins being taught tricks and girls being lured into the porn business are clear and it is this that leads to the tragic and highly upsetting ending. I must admit that it left me numb, beyond tears – we are some way beyond horror here, into raw human truth and pain. Lucy is played by a young actress called Pamela Moiseiwitsch, who I don’t recall having seen in anything else, and it is a very touching, affecting performance, which will break your heart. And people say that this is the “silly” episode of BEASTS. They haven’t got a clue what they are talking about.

Dummy is, if anything, more harrowing; but the pain is leavened by satire, for this is Kneale having a dig at Hammer Horror.  A trio of familiar faces from Doctor Who populate this story: Bernard Horsfall, who was – amongst other roles – Chancellor Goth in The Deadly Assassin; Glyn Houston from The Awakening and Clive Swift who was Jobel in Revelation of the Daleks and Mr Copper in that 2007 Xmas Special with Kylie on the Titanic in space. They’re joined by Lilias Walker who had a breif but memorable role as Sister Lamont in Terror of the Zygons. Horsfall plays an alcoholic actor whose only role is to clump around inside the ridiculous – but also oddly sinister – Dummy suit in a series of films which are clearly a pastiche on the Hammer genre: Revenge of the Dummy, Return of the Dummy, etc. Horsfall’s performance is so raw it is agonising to watch – he has a nervous breakdown right there on screen in front of you, sweating, sobbing, a broken man. The scene where his manager offers him whiskey – which he gladly takes – just to get him through the performance is ugly, and speaks cynical volumes about the vagaries of film production. The idea behind Dummy is that, like tribesmen wearing masks, an actor in a costume can become the costume, and something more… Comic relief is provided by Thorley Walters as a camp old thesp eternally waiting for his cue.

Special Offer is up next and is, in my view, the weakest. It stars a very young Pauline Quirke as a socially inept shop-girl bullied by her manager, who she blindly adores; this conflict brings about poltergeist activity in the supermarket, with tins flying through the air and boxes of cornflakes exploding everywhere. And that’s it, really. What makes the story is Quirke’s performance which is sometimes cute and sometimes quite disturbing, especially in the scenes where she appears to see “Brightway Billy”…

What Big Eyes is Kneale’s take on the werewolf legend. His concept – that millions of years back, mankind could have taken a lupine evolutionary path – is intriguing, and gives some weight to what is basically a “mad scientist in an attic” story. A young RSPCA officer (Michael Kitchen) is led to a pet-shop where he encounters old Mr Raymount (Patrick Magee) whom he discovers is conducting dangerous experiments in lycanthropy. I’ll say no more of the plot other than that it keeps you guessing right up until the final reveal! When people talk about this story they always rave about the performances of the two male leads, but it is Madge Ryan’s performance as Raymount’s daughter which really stands out for me. She totally owns the last ten minutes or so and her life story is horribly tragic. Once again BEASTS focuses on the human side of things, the human cost and pain, and makes for harrowing, upsetting television rather than merely horrific.

During Barty’s Party, the final episode and perhaps the most notorious, is a two-hander between Anthony Bate (who was Lacon in Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People) and Elizabeth Sellars as a middle-aged, middle-class couple whose house falls under siege from – that would be telling! Though if you’ve heard about it you probably already know. The invaders are never seen but revealed by sound effects, which is remarkably effective. The ending is chilling, though more in your standard horror genre vein than other entries in the series, so I don’t rate it quite as highly as The Dummy, Buddyboy or Baby.

The DVD also contains Murrain, Kneale’s entry into an earlier series of plays entitled Against the Crowd, which is remarkably similar to Baby in that it focuses on rural witchy goings-on. It stars Bernard Lee – yes! M out of James Bond! – and Una Brandon-Jones as old Mrs Clemson, who was Mrs “I DON’T CARE WHERE YE COME FROM!” Parkin in Withnail and I.

Stark, harrowing, full of truth and emotion and some startling, un-nerving concepts, BEASTS would never be made today, especially considering some of the subject matter in Buddyboy. In fact, one can readily imagine how the stories would be re-made today, resplendent with the latest effects with the action ramped up to 11 and all the depth and subtelty replaced by narcissistic melodrama. Let’s hope it never happens, and if you are a true fan of 1970s TV SF and Horror I urge you to check BEASTS out – but, be warned! Don’t watch it alone, late at night.

Especially Baby.

Seriously.

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