Author and Scriptwriter

'Among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.' -Ramsey Campbell

Thursday, 27 October 2016

10 TV Plays For Halloween

The Harrowing
When it comes to Halloween viewing, we’ve looked at movies, but the small screen’s offered up its share of terrors too. A lot of these come from the 1970s, the golden age of the single television play, but there are a couple of more modern offerings here.

1) The Stone Tape (1972)
Written by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, The Stone Tape centres on a group of scientific researchers who move into a facility at an abandoned stately home, tasked with developing a new recording medium. When Jill Greeley (Jane Asher), girlfriend of charismatic but tyrannical project head Peter Brock (Michael Bryant) discovers that a long-unused room there is apparently haunted, replaying a traumatic event from centuries ago, Brock is convinced he’s found the breakthrough he’s looking for.

2) Ghostwatch (1992)
Stephen Volk’s now-classic 1992 ‘mockumentary’, although broadcast on BBC’s Screen One and billed as a fictional TV play, fooled millions across the country, and succeeded in scaring the living hell out of them. Presented as a live investigation into a supposedly haunted house, it starred many well-known TV presenters of the day, including Mike Smith, Sarah Greene, Craig Charles and chat-show king Michael Parkinson. Delivers a truly terrifying climax. Possibly not the best thing to watch last thing at night, especially if you’re alone in the house.

3) The Signalman (1976)
The first of the BBC’s Ghost Story For Christmas adaptations not to be based on an M.R. James story – it’s based instead on one by Charles Dickens – has an impeccable pedigree: adapted by Andrew Davies (who went on to adapt Moll Flanders, Pride and Prejudice and House of Cards), it stars Denholm Elliott in the title role. Striking up a friendship with a traveller (Bernard Lloyd), he confides how he’s tormented by a shadowy figure who always appears before tragedy strikes on the line. The performances – Elliott’s especially – are what carry this creepy little half-hour.

4) Countess Ilona/The Werewolf Reunion (1977)
Robert Muller’s 1977 anthology series Supernatural (nothing to do with the Winchester brothers) centred on The Club Of The Damned, an exclusive London society where the price of admission is a true account of the supernatural: the only catch is that if your story doesn’t satisfy the audience, you won’t leave the premises alive. Most of the eight episodes were stand-alone stories, but Countess Ilona and The Werewolf Reunion form a crackling two-parter. Ilona (Billie Whitelaw) is a former courtesan, married off to the depraved Count Tyrrh by her former lovers (Charles Kay, Ian Hendry, John Fraser and Edward Hardwicke.) Now a widow, Ilona invites the four to her estate, with revenge in mind – because Count Tyrrh was a werewolf, and thanks to her lovers’ machinations, her beloved son is doomed to become a monster too...

5) Lost Hearts (1973)
The first of the BBC’s Ghost Stories For Christmas, based on the story by M.R. James. Orphaned Stephen (Simon Gipps-Kent) is sent to stay with his eccentric older cousin, Peregrine Abney (Joseph O’Conor), unaware that he’s to be the third and last in a series of human sacrifices intended to make Abney immortal. But the ghosts of Phoebe (Michelle Foster) and Giovanni (Christopher Davis), the first two victims, are still present, and have their own plans for Mr Abney. The ghosts are downright creepy, and O’Conor’s performance, both funny and sinister, is a highlight.

6) During Barty’s Party (1976)
Nigel Kneale again, this time with this 50 minute screw-turner from Beasts, a anthology series he wrote. During Barty’s Party is not only the finest of the plays, but one of the scariest TV programmes I’ve seen. Virtually a two-hander, starring Elizabeth Sellars and Anthony Bate as a middle-aged couple whose home is besieged by an army of murderous rats, it’s all the more frightening for the fact that you don’t see a single rat throughout the play: the whole thing’s driven by a combination of excellent sound effects and the sheer quality of the performances from Sellars and Bate. Well, that, of course, and the writing. Even after forty years, it’s lost none of its power.

7) A Child’s Voice (1978)
Written by David Thomson, this rarity, made for Irish TV (it’s sometimes inaccurately billed as a ‘lost BBC ghost story’) stars the late great T.P. McKenna as a broadcaster (modelled somewhat on A.J. Alan) who writes and performs tales of the macabre on late night radio. All goes well until he begins a new story whose plot culminates in the death of a child: he begins to receive telephone calls from a young boy, telling him not to continue the story. Naturally, he doesn’t listen...

You can view the complete play here:

8) The Nightmare Man (1981)
I’ve written at greater length over at This Is Horror about this four-part frightener, adapted by Dr Who and Blake’s 7 veteran Robert Holmes from David Wiltshire’s novel. An isolated Scottish island is stalked by a savage killer who appears both more and less than human. To find out more, go here

The Nightmare Man
9) A View From A Hill (2005)
When the BBC finally revived A Ghost Story For Christmas in 2005, it was with Peter Harness’ highly effective adaptation of M.R. James’ story. Fanshawe, an archaeologist, comes to a rural stately home to catalogue its collection of finds, and comes into possession of a pair of binoculars that show sights from the past. They turn out to have been created by a local clockmaker, using the bones of hanged men to achieve their effects – and now their ghosts are on Fanshawe’s trail...

10) The Harrowing (2014)
Concluding the first season of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s anthology series Inside No.9 was this darkly funny and creepy play, with a fine cast including Aimee-Ffion Edwards and Helen McCrory. Teenager Katy (Edwards) is hired by eccentric siblings Tabitha (McCrory) and Hector (Shearsmith) to housesit while they’re out for the night. Upstairs is their bedridden brother Andras, who can’t speak but will ring if he needs help. But all is not as it seems…

If you're looking for some Halloween reading matter, Simon Bestwick's collection of ghost stories, A Hazy Shade Of Winter, is available as an ebook here. Or you could check out this list...


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