Beasts by Nigel Kneale - horror TV from the 1970s

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Jan 22, 2008
Nigel Kneale is an important name in British TV. He was responsible for Quartermass, one of the most respected SF programmes in Britain, foresaw reality television in his play The Year of the Sex Olympics, and wrote the first adaptation of 1984 for the screen, which was wildly controversial in its day. Beasts is a series of six hour-long plays written by Kneale for ITV in the 1970s.

Each of the six plays is loosely connected to an animal, and each has paranormal elements. Briefly, the episodes are:

“Baby”: a pregnant woman discovers a mummified, walled-up creature in her new house, and comes to suspect that her home is cursed.

“Special Offer”: poltergeist activity wrecks a supermarket after a teenager develops an unrequited crush on her obnoxious manager.

“The Dummy”: a depressed actor comes to sympathise with, and eventually turns into, the absurd monster he is required to play in a tacky Hammer-style horror film.

“What Big Eyes”: a scientist berates and oppresses his daughter as he tries to perfect a serum that will turn him into a wolf.

“During Barty’s Party”: while a banal radio show plays in the background, a middle-class couple find their home besieged by a pack of man-eating rats.

“Buddyboy”: a businessman buys an aquarium to convert into a porn cinema, but is troubled by the ghost of a mistreated dolphin and his obsessed former trainer.

As these summaries suggest, the episodes could have been pretty tacky. Kneale’s great achievement, I think, is to treat his potentially daft subject matter with seriousness and respect. In “The Dummy”, the actor’s plight creates pity, comedy and ultimately horror: he may look silly wandering about snarling in his naff monster suit, but when he takes the suit off, but doesn’t stop snarling, the story becomes much darker.

Similarly, “Buddyboy” should be one of the stupidest tales ever committed to film (it’s certainly one of the oddest). But it’s ultimately a sad story about exploitation, by both the pornographer and the aquarium owner (and is in itself slightly exploitative). It also contains some subtle, but potent, nightmare fuel involving the dolphin and its trainer.

However, there are serious flaws. Firstly, this is 1970s television: the sets are crude, the acting often stylised and occasionally just plain bad, the stories very static and talky. Worse, almost every episode has something clearly wrong with it. One is nearly ruined by the awful acting of the second character. Another has a totally unconvincing corpse. Two contain plot details which don’t stand up to close examination. To get something out of this, you are going to have to want it to work.

Which doesn’t mean that it’s rubbish by a very long way. The best comparison I can come up with is a cross between the old Tales of the Unexpected and the equally old adaptations of M.R. James ghost stories – although it’s nastier than the James stories, and lacks the wink-to-camera quality of some of Tales of the Unexpected. The execution may be a bit lacking, but the ideas are powerful, and even the more tired themes (hauntings, werewolves etc) get a fresh treatment. In fact, the story I consider the weakest, “Special Offer”, is one of the best-produced – it’s just not as original as the others, especially in the light of Carrie.

Ultimately, I find it hard to give this programme a score out of ten or even to know whether or not to recommend it. I enjoyed it very much - but maybe that's just me. However, despite their flaws, these are potent stories. Whilst lacking in excitement and immediate thrills, they are not easily forgotten.
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None The Wiser
Jul 24, 2003
I have this series on DVD and, although it is a bit dated and suffers from the production problems already mentioned, I second it as worth a look for any fan of Nigel Kneale's work.

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