Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Hallowe'en Post 2 - Top Ten Scary TV shows!

I think this is even harder to narrow down than yesterday's Top Ten horror films... Spooky tv is difficult because it can seem ephemeral. 'Did I really see that? Did that really happen?' That's how I felt after 'Ghostwatch' aired back in 1992 - twenty years ago! Advertised as a drama and listed in the Radio Times and the papers as such, people still believed that the live ghost-hunt on bbc 1 was absolutely true. It's not something they would ever make nowadays, but i'm so glad they made it back then - and that, all these years, we can watch and rewatch it on DVD - looking for all the little glimpses of Mr Pipes...

Spooky TV always had the advantage of taking familiar, cosy faces and putting them into terrifying situations - as they did with Parky, Sarah Greene and Mike Smith in Ghostwatch. This can make everything seem much more real than it does in films. It's about the homely turning horrifying.

TV always had that feeling of being *too* scary, too... with that sensation of something being broadcast that perhaps shouldn't have been. I grew up in a world where Mary Whitehouse was scrutinizing episodes of Doctor Who, monitoring for when it went 'too far' in the scary stakes... (what a shame it is that those 70s busybodies weren't scrutinizing the sources of *real* horror at that time, rather than the fantasy variety...)

Anyhow - here's my list!

10. CHILDREN OF THE STONES. I only vaguely recall this ITV kids' drama set in and around a small village built within a circle of spooky stones. It's thick with atmosphere and menace, and it was filmed during that spectacular hot summer of 1976. It's kids racing about on 70s bikes and realising that all the adults around them are possessed, mindless, completely crazy...  in some ways it's the quintessence of every spooky adventure serial there ever was. Maybe even the quintessence of childhood in the 1970s...

9. ESCAPE INTO NIGHT. Something i was too young for - but I knew the book, 'Marianne Dreams', which was later filmed as 'Paperhouse'. It's the one about the girl who draws things in her sketchpad as she sits in her sick bed and when she sleeps her drawings come to life. It's the one with the standing stones with the eyeballs staring at her. (Why are standing stones involved in so many of the spookiest kids' tv?)

8. CHRISTMAS SPIRITS. Unlike the two above, this is a TV drama that *isn't* available on DVD. I've seen it only on an ancient video recording. It's from the early 1980s and is splendidly absurd and, in its own way, disquieting. Willis Hall wrote this and it's as if the idea was to create ITV's own answer to the famously frightening and rather stately BBC adaptations of M.R James, shown at Christmas time. Except, it being itv, the actor they hire to turn spookily demented is Elaine Stritch.

9. O WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU. This is the m.r james adaptation they all aspire to. Michael Hordern is fab in this. Everything is marvellous. i've never been so scared of a black bin bag floating down a beach. *Everything* is perfect here. And don't listen when people put down the 2010 remake with John Hurt - it's a very interesting twist on the original, I think - cleverly done, at a time when bbc bods were intent on thinking they knew how to improve on the plots of classics...

8. THE WOMAN IN BLACK. Again like CHRISTMAS SPIRITS, unavailable, and seen only in ancient 1980s recordings - but much scarier than the recent Hammer film, for me, anyway.  It's about suggestion and long scary pauses - that's what the best horror on tv has.

7. SALEM'S LOT. Tobe Hooper's 70s version of the Stephen King novel - and one of the things i remember most being discussed excitedly in the playground at school the next day - ever. A perfect adaptation that somehow keys into the essential cosiness of king's world... before ripping it to shreds.

Why do i keep putting the pictures in the wrong order? Spooky.

6. THE TWO RONNIES: THE PHANTOM RASPBERRY BLOWER. In 1976 or whenever it was first shown, as a serial during each Saturday night Two Ronnies show, this Victorian pastiche written by Spike Milligan used to make me feel quite uneasy.

5. STEPTOE AND SON: THE DESPERATE HOURS. Steptoe and Son always used to scare me a bit... that sinister old man and that statue hanging up in that frightening house. In this episode there's a jailbreak and two starving desperate cons hold our heroes hostage. Leonard Rossiter makes one of his astonishing guest appearances - instantly creating a memorable character who both frightens us and make us pity him. There's nothing *quite* like a frightening episode of a sitcom - see also the escaped-convict episodes of 'Only Fools and Horses' and 'Two Point Four Children.'

4. MOST HAUNTED. When I first saw Most Haunted i could hardly believe it. Somebody was doing Ghostwatch for real! The first one I saw was a live broadcast from Saint Pancras. It involved a scared studio audience, night vision filming, a scouser doing an outrageous seance and familiar Blue Peter face Yvette Fielding striding about purposefully in some very dark and nasty places. In that first episode I saw there was a past life regression to Boudicca - and i was convinced I saw a shadowy figure behind a door that no one else had noticed. I almost phoned in. Later, brilliant episodes saw them investigate the Edinburgh vaults and the Pendle witches. It needs to come back.

3. DR TERRIBLE'S HOUSE OF HORRIBLE. Steve Coogan's rather unpopular six part deconstruction of every single horror film i love - in the form of an anthology series from hell. My favourite episode has to be the Amicus anthology spoof - but the Fu Manchu / Weng Chiang / Jason King episode is up there. See also the LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN'S 2000 Christmas special - for similar uberfan geekout.

2. GHOSTWATCH. I've said it a million times, i know. But it's one of my favourite bits of tv ever, A classic Edwardian ghost story dressed up in pitch-perfect pastiche of an early 1990's live TV broadcast. It takes so many risks with tone and style, and seeding of backstory - and playing games with what's real and what isn't. It's something incredibly clever disguising itself as something incredibly dumb. And it still manages to be horrifyingly scary.

1. DOCTOR WHO - THE DAEMONS. Just because. It's the best Doctor Who story ever because it's the scariest and the most cosy. Every single character is written and performed beautifully. It riffs off everything it's pastiching perfectly (Nigel Kneale, Dennis Wheatley, Night of the Demon, etc) but still allows the whole thing to live and breathe. Oh, just go and watch it again, if you can.

I'm still drawing up my list of favourite scary books! you'll see it here soon, before Hallowe'en, i hope. In the meantime - what scary tv have i missed? What are you going to be watching...?


  1. Do you remember the Two Ronnies Pinocchio sketch? Ronnie Corbett played a demonic puppet with glowing red eyes. Severely freaked me out as a kid.

    Just checked - it's on YouTube, and is from the 1987 Xmas Special. Can't bring myself to watch it...

    1. yes, i do! and it was based on a *very* creepy bbc adaptation of Pinocchio, also on youtube...

    2. I'll let you know if I muster up the courage to watch it!

  2. Boy from space, Chocky or other BBC Ghost Stories (The Signalman), Tales of the Unexpected's Royal Jelly or Armchair Thriller which has the creepiest opening titles ever....

    1. 'the boy from space' rings a bell. Was that a schools programme..?

  3. Brilliant list, Paul. We're watching vaguely Halloweeny Whos round our house tonight... including the haunted house episode of The Chase! One kids' series I would love to see again (it's now on DVD) is Come Back Lucy, based on the book by Pamela Sykes. I remember it as being very creepy on Sunday teatimes in the late 70s...

    1. Dearest Blue box,

      i didn't know 'Come Back Lucy' was out on dvd! i reviewed the novel it was based on earlier this year - here: http://lifeonmagrs.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/come-back-lucy-and-black-maria.html

      hope you have a lovely Spooky Who night!