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Approaching Menace: The Frighteners on DVD

  The nature of much of television is ephemeral, most of it is broadcast once and never seen again, but a memory of a clip can last a lifetime: what was the show where...? Programmes dealing with genre material - comedy, horror, science fiction and so on - were the purveyors of more of that sort of nostalgia, if nostalgia indeed it was, than plenty of other broadcasts, so while you don't get much reminiscence of a Weekend World interview, you would likely be interested to see if anyone else recalled something like an episode of this anthology series, The Frighteners, a Sunday night set of stories designed to send the viewers to bed feeling discomfited all ready for work or school the next morning. London Weekend Television were its producers, and the theme was horror, only not the most obvious, supernatural ghosties or vampires or werewolves or... well, you get the idea, the everyday was the setting for these tales.

First made was The Minder, which eschewed any overt horror at all by being the apparent predecessors to all of those guns 'n' geezers gangster thrillers that clog up the DVD bargain bins, except here the action was crammed into an intense half hour. It had a fine cast of four tough guy actors, with bullet-headed Kenneth J. Warren essaying the crime lord who is busted out of hospital where he has been recuperating with a broken leg. He is taken to a flat on a London council estate where his minder, Tom Bell, assures him that he is there for his own safety and rival hood Brian Glover is no threat to him; Warren Clarke, fresh off A Clockwork Orange, was there as well as one of Bell's henchmen who seems innocent of what is actually going on. Rather than rely on gore or torture, this generated a mood of menace as we knew it was not going to end well for somebody, we just didn't know who, though the flashbacks peppered throughout were a strong indication. This was a sketch more than a weighty drama, but with a potent atmosphere.

Next was Night of the Stag, not a nature documentary but a roundabout way of saying "stag night", as the story took place over the course of said evening and into the morning of the wedding day. It was penned by Andrea Newman, yet to come to national fame as the author of scandalising family drama A Bouquet of Barbed Wire, but showing clear signs of her style, and the only female writer in this series. She crafted a woman-centric account of Jennie Linden's emotionally bruised ex-girlfriend who spends the night before her old boyfriend Robin Ellis's marriage trying to either persuade him that he is making a mistake and should have stayed with her, or more likely to sabotage his potential happiness by reminding him of how disastrous their relationship was. Aside from a couple of bits in the pub with the pals, this was largely a two-hander where Ellis came across as callous to a point, but reasonable in wanting to move on, and Linden delivered a performance of aggressive neediness that Glenn Close would have been proud of, the question being who would survive said night.

There was a military theme to Old Comrades, the biggest star featured being John Thaw, about to win his breakthrough role in The Sweeney and commanding the screen in a work somewhat indebted to Harold Pinter by way of those soldiering dramas that took a withering look at the rules and drawbacks of life in the armed forces. Robert Urquhart was the retired officer who now spends his days birdwatching, and has his own shed in the forest near his home where he can stay and spend time in the company of his feathered friends. Then one night he hears singing outside, and peers through the curtains to make out a couple of figures advancing on the hut; they introduce themselves as two of the men who served under him, and proceed to remind him of precisely why he should remember them, as nothing about them has jogged his memory, helpfully filling in the gaps for us in the audience. Bringing with it that peculiarly sinister tone that politely aggressive men could in plays of those days, both on television and the theatre, yet again we wonder throughout whether every character will still be alive at the end of the episode.

Mike Hodges had a wide range when it came to picking projects, and his episode The Manipulators was made around the point he directed Get Carter. This was a rather less gangster-oriented affair than that cult classic movie, unless you regarded the Secret Services as criminal, which you may well be thinking they are after watching this tale of small scale psychological warfare. As ever with this series, the concept was simplicity itself, it's what they did with it that counted, so here we had a couple of spies, for want of a better word, seeing to it that potential student insurgence was nipped in the bud in a most brutal manner, by driving the couple in question to a breakdown that had a certain finality to it. The two agents were played by Stanley Lebor (best known as Howard Hughes in the great eighties sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles) and Brian Grellis who was a student of sorts himself, a student of black ops in a, yes, manipulative manner, and this built to a nasty twist you may or may not see coming. Definitely one of the better stories, with Hodges keeping proceedings as claustrophobic as possible.

As you may have noticed, these short plays tended to hew closer to half hour thrillers than they did the horror genre, but The Disappearing Man was more legitimately aligned with the fear factor, as it starred the prolific Victor Maddern in a rare starring role. He played a man who believed he was, as the title states, disappearing, and was a clever bit of casting to have one of Britain’s "that guy" actors to essay the part since many of those watching would recognise his face but maybe not be able to put a name to it (or vice versa), so to have him as a character who felt that nobody could remember who he was, was most appropriate. The fretting individual finds even his wife (Avis Bunnage) and boss (Ray Smith, from Dempsey and Makepeace) either ignoring him or accusing him of not being there, and his application for a council house has been turned down because the official can't see any evidence he exists. This was built up as a series of flashbacks as Maddern sat on a train trying to think of a reason why he would be recalled at all, and as we have glimpsed he is carrying a gun we can surmise this is not going to end well; it was a curious little account, but quietly effective in its depiction of petty frustrations giving way to major turmoil.

Pop culture for men seemed to be full of mercenaries back in the seventies, and so it was here, as Firing Squad detailed the efforts of a band of guns for hire to go after one of their number who double-crossed them three years before. That man was played by Edward Brayshaw, better known latterly to a generation of schoolchildren as Mr Meaker, boss of Rentaghost, though Doctor Who fans would also be familiar with him from Patrick Troughton's last story as the current Doctor, The War Games, where he played a baddie. Here he was more morally ambiguous, as Michael Craig won top billing as befitting his status as one of those recognisable stars who it may be difficult to pin down precisely the roles he was famous for: he was simply prolific and reliable, and so the latter proved here as he displayed his sinister side as the man in charge who intercepts Brayshaw at the airport and gets his men to escort him to a football ground where the interrogation - and threat of execution if he doesn't reveal the location of the lolly given him by African Colonel Rudolph Walker (in a fine one scene bit) - will take place. Jacques Gillies' script was pretty basic, more like an opening act than a self-contained story.

If this series is beginning to remind you of a more famous one, Tales of the Unexpected, then at times it did come across as a non-Roald Dahl precursor to that programme's sting in the tale material, and nowhere more so than in Miss Mouse, which took that Sunday night staple's common approach of twisting an unhappy marriage until it snaps in macabre fashion and applied it to a largely single-location effort that verged on black comedy. The warring couple were played by John Normington and Alison Fiske, she being especially waspish in her assessment of her husband when they return home after a party, so she wasn't Miss Mouse. Heather Canning was, their babysitter of a kind since she took the locals' baby monitors and the keys to their flats all the better to listen in on the couples' offspring to ensure their safety. Quite what she did when two children were needing attention at once was not investigated, but suffice to say she is listening in when an unfortunate, if predictable for this series by that point, event occurs, and the twists begin to mount up in a manner that would be funny if they had played it for comedy instead of the more desperate tone they concocted. But just desserts were served eventually.

The Treat was penned by Douglas Livingstone, the man who so successfully adapted The Day of the Triffids for the BBC around ten years later, but it came across as a writer doing an impersonation of Dennis Potter in that it depicted adults behaving like children until tragedy strikes. The premise here started out mature enough, as three old geezers from a soldiers' retirement home have their "treat", which is being taken out for a stroll in the countryside with the social worker assigned to look after them, Ian Holm. He is the sort of reasonable to a fault, firm but fair chap you would expect to be in that job, but as they reach their destination he finds two of the men are somewhat less than friendly, or not as friendly as they initially appeared, thanks to some politics back at the home where the gruffest doesn't like living in a room with the meekest, and as we see, would prefer to be with the other, tougher ex-sergeant. They set about getting their way by playing a game of, what else, soldiers, and though the conclusion strained credibility (there were a lot of characters suddenly flying off the handle in this series) it was appropriately grim in that it was the opposite of what you wanted to happen (unless you were a sadist).

The theme of the paradoxically unfriendly but friendly strangers was uppermost in Bed and Breakfast, which opened with husband and wife Ian Hendry and Wendy Gifford stopping in a country lane in the dead of night, and he getting out to place a "Bed and Breakfast" sign on the tree outside of an old house, but barely acknowledging he is the one who has essentially invited himself in. The owner (John Welsh) is baffled, an elderly man who refuses to acknowledge his home is a guest house, for the simple reason that it is not, but Hendry is having none of it, and after pointing out said sign, and noting how distressed his wife is becoming, Welsh has, out of politeness' sake, little option but to agree to put them up for the night. From here the apparently random picking of the elderly couple who live there grows all the more vexing, for the viewer as well since we see them as the victims of a grotesque practical joke, but as the drama wears on it is revealed precisely what Hendry and Gifford's scheme is. Not that it was any less grotesque, and if the chills lost some of their power once the twist arrived, the denouement recovered sufficiently for one of the series' highlights.

It was all there in the title with You Remind Me of Someone, a psychothriller written by the splendidly-named Wilfred Greatorex, better known as the creator of seventies dystopian sci-fi series 1990, as a long distance lorry driver (Barry Jackson) jumps into his cab to find there's somebody already there, someone he has never seen before as far as he can tell. He is never identified, but played by Jack Hedley, notorious among trash fans as the star of Lucio Fulci's New York Ripper, and he is aggrieved about business to do with his wife. We have already watched him acting suspiciously around a suburban house, nothing we can pin down exactly, however, and now he claims he needs to reach Newcastle which Jackson is reluctant to help him out with, even with a couple of fivers waved under his nose. That said, he does drive off with the stubborn mystery man in the passenger seat, and comes to regret that as he grows more and more aggressive, as we suspect the driver has had something to do with the hitcher's wife, possibly an affair that he hotly denies. There is a very good motive for the trucker to do so, which we do not find out till the end which both answers our questions and brings up more, it was a simple concept but quite effective as British driving yarns can be.

That common plotline that emerged in the sixties of the victim of an establishment or authority figure returning to get their own back was also the main drive behind The Classroom (as it had been in Old Comrades) where a retiring schoolteacher (Patience Collier) has just attended a celebration of her career with parents of her current class in the very room she has taught in for decades, only to be confronted by someone she does not recognise. He (Clive Swift) recognises her, however, as the woman who ruined his life by destroying his confidence and turning the world against him, thus sticking him with the failure brand that he has never been able to shake off. He wants revenge now, and means to use his bottle of medication for his mental illness to get it: simply, he will force the teacher to gulp down an overdose, and then have his satisfaction. This was written by award-winning author William Trevor who managed a smart twist on what could have been a hoary old tale of little originality, based around the former pupil lapsing into his childhood deference for his tutor, resulting in a development that was incredibly bleak should you allow yourself to dwell upon it. Once again, the authorities have the upper hand, though it may have been a Pyrrhic victory at best.

Another encounter with an authority figure was at the heart of Glad to Be of Help, where Conservative M.P. John Standing was completing his day at his surgery when a latecomer arrives in the burly shape of Joe Lynch, an ex-boxer who wants assistance with a personal matter. This played out more as we might have expected, with the politician on the back foot throughout; the constituent starts out friendly enough, yet gradually reveals himself to be unhinged which given his intimidating build, never mind his personality, kept the viewer on edge for the full half hour. Nevertheless, this yet another suspense item to use the fear of mental illness in others to mine its effects, and it did tap into something rather unlovely about the treatment of the afflicted, not necessarily to the benefit of sufferers since the way the perspective went the audience was always on the politician's side for we too would be afraid if the man we were talking to, who previously had seemed rational a minute ago, started behaving decidedly irrationally. With that in mind, you could observe there was a note of sympathy for the boxer by the time his wife has tracked him down, but not entirely forgiveness for erupting into violence.

The proto-Tom Baker in Doctor Who opening titles only cheaper heralds the final episode, where we are led down the garden path of preparing for the worst when schoolgirl Gillian Bailey (then famed among Britain's youngsters as Billie in Here Come the Double Deckers) appears to be stalked by what she and her friend term a D.O.M. when they are nearly confronted by him at night after choir practice. He was played by Catweazle himself, Geoffrey Bayldon, who in spite of having a knack for comedy as seen in that popular show, could also turn up the malevolence if the need arose, so we think that will be what he is essaying here. But the surprise was that it was the young girl who has the advantage, as she visits the zoo, her mother assuming she is going with pals when she is actually on her own, all the better to confront Bayldon who has a more meaningful connection to her than the story lets on. As the man is sent further into the depths of anguish and despair by her attitude and what she tells him, we realise it was the girl who has the control over him, rather than the other way around, leading to an undeniably conclusive demonstration of her callous behaviour that she feels no remorse over, thanks to not believing in God anymore, obviously the sign of a heart of ice in this era's drama.

[Network have released The Frighteners as a two-disc set of every episode, with all but two in colour, and an image gallery as an extra. It's part of their Forgotten Television Drama brand which revives archive programmes from ITV that have slipped into the past. Not a straight horror series, it did rely on the grimmer aspects as its selling point at the time, and so it is now, satisfying the same entertainment.]
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006