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Category Archives: 1980s

K9 & Company: A Girl’s Best Friend

To this day, fans of Doctor Who regard K9 and Company as an infamous relation whose name is not to be mentioned in polite company. This is hardly surprising: although the viewing figures were respectable, the pilot episode was a critical flop and a full series was never commissioned—a small mercy for which many were thankful. The horrific theme-tune alone—just one of the many crimes Ian Levine has perpetrated against Who fandom—is enough to trigger post-traumatic stress disorder in some viewers. However, with the exception of the title sequence, K9 and Company isn’t actively bad; merely uninspiring. Whilst such banality cannot be excused, it’s now interesting to view the episode in the context of “folk-horror”—a sub-genre which has received much critical attention recently.

One of the reasons K9 and Company fails to gel is the bizarre decision to remove the eponymous mechanical hound from an overtly sci-fi landscape: with the exception of K9 himself, there is no other fantastical element to the programme—which has the effect of undermining the credibility of the primary folk-horror narrative, and leaving K9 an incongruous inclusion in his own series. As a vehicle for Sarah Jane Smith, the episode is fine; as a showcase for K9, it is disastrous. The problem is compounded by the introduction of Brendan—one of those smug child-geniuses of whom John Nathan-Turner was so fond—who further detracts attention from the star whilst being utterly infuriating in his own right. The character’s only virtue is to offer a welcome inversion of gender-roles where getting captured is concerned.

Even as folk-horror, K9 and Company is thin gruel. The plot—such as it is—is a familiar one: an insular village is home to a witchcraft coven who require human sacrifice to ensure the crops do not fail. Even by 1981, this particularly motif had been flogged to death and the episode offers no radical twist on the formula. The pagan pageantry is effectively handled, but the coven never feels to be much of a threat. Although the ever-reliable Colin Jeavons imbues his character with both the required cowardice and menace, there is little suspense regarding the identity of the coven leaders and the actors they chose to play the part lack the gravitas provided by the likes of Bernard Hepton (Robin Redbreast) or Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man).

The philosophy of witchcraft as portrayed in the episode is as inconsistent as the rest of it: it’s implied that the coven has a long tradition in the village; yet they worship Hecate—who as an ancient Greek goddess is unlikely to have been worshipped by a genuine folk-tradition in the Cotswolds. Perhaps this reflects the syncretic influence of writers such as Robert Graves, Margaret Murray, James Frazer and Gerald Gardner, who attempted to identify many ancient female deities with a single “Great Goddess”. The Wicker Man, for instance, admits that Summerisle’s pagan tradition was largely invented by a Victorian antiquarian. However, there is no such clarification here. Doubtless the origin-myths of Wicca were so insidious at the time that even the writers were confused on such points of authenticity.

If the episode has a saving grace, it is the character of Sarah Jane Smith. In the parent series, she was too often relegated to a subordinate role, whose purpose was to ask questions, scream, fall over, and get captured. Here she is written as the character was originally intended: proactive, resourceful and confident; a reminder of just why Sarah Jane is DW’s most fondly remembered regular. Indeed, one of the reasons there is so little sense of threat in the episode is not merely that we do not particularly care about the fates of Aunt Lavinia or Brendan, but that a common-or-garden witches’ coven seems no match for the character. Needless to say, she is played with verve by Liz Sladen. Even amidst such mediocrity, her performance shines: watched today, it only emphasises the tragedy of her early death in 2011.

Produced by BBC Television : originally transmitted on 28th December 1981

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Hammer House of Horror: The House That Bled to Death (1980)

Possibly the most famous episode of Hammer House of Horror, The House That Bled to Death is as lurid as its title suggests. Ironically the appellation cannot help recalling The House That Dripped Blood; a portmanteau film produced by Hammer’s great rival—Amicus—which is rather less literal than this televisual outing. The plot is a familiar one: an average nuclear family moves into the modern suburban house in which a brutal murder was once committed. It is not long before they start to experience all manner of supernatural phenomena: the walls run with blood; a severed hand turns up in the fridge; and most significantly two hunting-knives keep reappearing in mysterious circumstances.

As ever, the influences on this episode of Hammer House of Horror are not difficult to discern: the most conspicuous is certainly The Amityville Horror; the film of which had been released the previous year—based on a bestselling book published in 1977. Closer to home, the episode was surely also influenced by the narrative of the Enfield Poltergeist: although Guy Lyon Playfair’s book on the subject could only have been released a short time before the episode was written, the case gripped the British tabloid media from August 1977 until the paranormal activity abated in 1979. Although much of the imagery is drawn from the many domestic horror movies produced through the 1970s in the US, it is the controversy surrounding the books themselves that seems to have been episode’s principle inspiration.

Sadly many of the shock techniques deployed by The House That Bled to Death have lost their impact today and the episode certainly pales compared to that high watermark of British “suburban haunted-house” stories, Ghostwatch—it tries too hard to be graphic at the expense of building dread. The climactic set-piece in which a children’s party is showered in blood by a ruptured pipe ought to be sickening; however, the use of such vividly scarlet “Kensington gore” diminishes the credibility of the scene. The only truly disturbing moment is the sight of the family’s cat impaled on a broken window; a particularly nasty moment which makes you wonder if the script-writer was familiar with Nigel Kneale’s classic haunted-house story, Minuke—in which the family’s pet dog suffers a similar fate.

The double-twist conclusion leads us into Tales of the Unexpected territory and redeems much of what has gone before by demonstrating that its tackiness was deliberate. Yet like so many twist endings, it also leaves you feeling cheated—with the impression that the time you invested in the previous forty-five minutes was wasted on an extended set-up that proved to be misdirection. Moreover the rationalisation offered by the conclusions transmutes the episode from supernatural horror to psychological thriller in an instant. Whilst it makes us pause to ponder the effect cases like Amityville or Enfield had on the young children at the centre of those media maelstroms, it is ultimately a hollow revelation and rather less satisfying that its author doubtless intended.

Produced by Hammer Films in association with ITC Entertainment : originally transmitted on 11th October 1980.

 

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The Watch House (1988)

Based on a 1977 novel by prolific children’s author Robert Westall, The Watch House was adapted for television in 1988 by BBC North-East. The three-part series is set in “Garmouth”: a thinly-veiled pseudonym for Tynemouth, where the series was actually filmed. Children’s television drama had a penchant for going further afield than London and the Home Counties in this period—think Moondial, The Snow Spider, Century Falls, Earthfasts, Elidor and more—a trend which often yielded a potent atmosphere missing from series with more narrow horizons. The Watch House is especially successful in its evocation of the genius loci, thanks to its loving use of the ruins of Tynemouth Priory and the eponymous Watch House of the First Volunteer Life Brigade.

Like Moondial, The Watch House was originally written with a real location in mind and mercifully the BBC budget stretched to filming there. But that is not the only similarity: both dramas open with an adolescent girl being fobbed off into the care of some distant relative she has never really met and supernatural events throughout act as a counterpoint to personal trauma. Sadly, this strategy isn’t as deftly accomplished as it was in Moondial and Ann—the protagonist—is a more prickly character than Minty ever was. The ebb-and-flow of the narrative is also poorly handled; a number of emotional beats seem to happen off-screen between episodes and so each part starts at a moment of high tension which seems disconnected from the conclusion of the preceding installment. The effect is quite jarring.

The supernatural aspect of the plot concerns a haunting at the titular life-brigade watch-house which Ann must resolve before she can achieve her own emotional closure. Its motifs are far less unique than Moondial but thankfully the terror delivers: I originally watched the story aged five and it traumatised me thoroughly. The double-haunting makes a clever twist and the malevolence of one ghost is particularly well conveyed. If the jump scares seem muted today they certainly weren’t at the time. Even now the way the camera focuses on the dusty skull is particularly eerie, although the image I most vividly remember being disturbed by is the ship’s figurehead carved into a representation of a Hoplite—especially its final destruction.

Watched as an adult, it is undoubtedly the sense of place which is most vividly communicated and the watch-house itself is probably the most powerful presence in the serial; an abandoned, cobwebbed building full of strange and forgotten artifacts—it evokes a potent melancholy which is emphasised by the mournful incidental music. The conclusion ties things up rather neatly so as to provide the closure that will prevent years of nightmares; thus, the serial does not haunt us in the way we might like. However, it was not made for adults, and the fact that a number of images lingered with me over so many years is a mark of its success as children’s supernatural drama. There is always need for such entry-level supernatural drama; and whilst it may not hold up as well as Moondial for an adult audience, there remains much to enjoy for those attuned to the genius loci.

Produced by BBC1 : originally transmitted 7th – 21st December 1988

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2014 in 1980s, BBC Television, Children's TV

 

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Hammer House of Horror: Guardian of the Abyss (1980)

It was a coincidence that I watched Guardian of the Abyss so hot on the heels of Warlock; my viewing schedule just happened to fall that way. Nonetheless it was a serendipitous, even synchronistic juxtaposition and while their use of occultism is fascinating to ponder individually, studying them in tandem is more instructive still. Both episodes use the language and motifs of the Western Mystery Tradition faithfully—neither reduces its practice or study to mere devil-worship—but there the similarity ends. The relative moral complexity of Cosmo Gallion’s circle in Warlock is entirely lacking in the Order of Choronzon: where Gallion was seeking knowledge and enlightenment; in Guardian of the Abyss, Charles Randolph is motivated entirely by pride and a base lust for power.

Indeed, Charles Randolph is essentially an analogue of Mocata, from Hammer’s 1968 cinematic adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s novel—The Devil Rides Out; and the narrative of Guardian of the Abyss is reminiscent of that classic film in several respects.These correspondences are only highlighted by the presence of Rosalyn Landor, whose first screen role had been in The Devil Rides Out when she was only ten years old. Fortunately her participation in Guardian of the Abyss was not a mere sop to cinema history and here she is the perfect choice for her aloof and otherworldly character. John Carson is similarly well cast—but as a veteran of Hammer villainy, that is unsurprising: he brings to Charles Randolph all the diabolical menace he exuded playing Squire Hamilton in Plague of the Zombies.

Guardian of the Abyss was scripted by David Fisher, who was responsible for a similarly occult-themed 1978 episode of Doctor Who—The Stones of Blood. Both these stories suggest he was fully conversant with occult mythology and Guardians of the Abyss is full of references that suggest he was aiming for a certain verisimilitude. Aleister Crowley’s attempts to invoke Choronzon are referenced; as are Doctor Dee’s experiments with Edward Kelly—his shewstone and his receipt of the Enochian language. Inevitably there is a glut of more clichéd imagery, including mesmerism, poppets and blood-sacrifice: this is a Hammer production after all! It’s curious to think that audiences in 1980 were expected to be fully conversant with such material—a legacy of the counter-culture’s diffusion into mainstream media.

Certainly the nods to The Devil Rides Out are intentional; there is even a plot device lifted straight from The Wicker Man and it shares that film’s downbeat ending. Indeed, although Guardian of the Abyss may exemplify the “demonisation” of occult traditions in popular media (no pun intended), you cannot say it isn’t appropriately spooky. The Order of Choronzon are a thoroughly sinister bunch and—despite some dodgy prosthetics—the climax is genuinely chilling. Indeed, it is probably far more unnerving than the conclusion of The Devil Rides Out. At the end of the day, that is exactly what you want from an episode of a horror anthology series—even if it means smearing Thelemites in the process. Besides: isn’t the frisson of transgression exactly what draws many people to the Left Hand Path in the first place?

Produced by Hammer Films in association with ITC Entertainment : originally transmitted on 15th November 1980

 

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