Friday 24 March 2023

Nigel Kneale's Beasts (1976)

Beasts is a six-part 1976 British horror anthology TV series made by ATV and created and written by Nigel Kneale. Kneale is best known for his 1950s Quatermass sci-fi/horror TV serials which were later adapted to film by Hammer, with great success although Kneale wasn’t happy with the Hammer versions. Kneale later wrote some very strange, disturbing but fascinating TV plays such as The Year of the Sex Olympics and The Stone Tape (both of which I highly recommend).

Kneale had a knack for mixing horror with science fiction in a genuinely original and surprising manner.

Beasts is typical of Kneale's work in that you’re never quite sure if there’s a supernatural element of if the stories are science fiction. Or they might possibly be merely the products of overheated imaginations.

The episodes

Baby is an exercise in folk horror. Peter Gilkes (Simon MacCorkindale) and his wife Jo (Jane Wymark) have just moved to the country. Peter was tired of being a city vet. He wanted to be a real country vet. Jo is a country girl but oddly she seems less happy about the movie. Maybe she’ll feel better when their very rundown cottage is fixed up a bit. Jo is pregnant and she’s anxious since she had a miscarriage a year earlier. Jo’s anxiety will play an important part in the story.

While tearing down a wall Peter and Jo find a huge earthenware jar. It contains a mummified - something. Peter is a vet but he has no idea what it is, although he finds it fascinating. Jo is totally creeped out by it.

Jo hears all sorts of tales, some of which may be true and some of which may be folklore. The tales concern the piece of land on which the cottage stands, and the reason nobody farms this land. She also discovers an interesting fact about the previous tenants. They had no children. This seems significant to Jo.

Jo hears strange noises and sees a few things that disturb her. Her anxiety grows. Nobody takes her fears seriously. The viewer will also wonder just how seriously to take her fears. Most of the things she sees and hears could be described as ambiguous. To find out whether Jo’s fears really are justified you’ll have to watch the episode. Good episode.

Buddyboy is wildly original and quirky. Dave (Martin Shaw) is thinking of buying a broken-down dolphinarium. Not for the dolphins. The dolphins are long gone. Dave wants to turn the place into a cinema to show adult films. That’s the business Dave is in. He already owns an adult cinema. Converting this place into a cinema will be easy because a cinema is what it originally was, before it was turned into a dolphinarium.

The guy selling the place, Hubbard (Wolfe Morris), seems extraordinarily jumpy and anxious to sell. He keeps talking about all the trouble he had with Buddyboy, his star dolphin. Buddyboy was a great performer but difficult to handle.

There’s a strange girl, Lucy (Pamela Moiseiwitsch) who is always hanging around the dolphinarium. She’s obsessed with Buddyboy as well. She thought he was the most wonderful animal that ever lived.

Dave is strangely drawn to the odd waif-like Lucy and they gradually become involved. Then there’s the ending (and I have no intention of revealing any spoilers here) which exasperates a lot of people. They feel cheated because there is no obvious supernatural element and they resort to prosaic interpretations which I feel are probably wrong.

My feeling is that Kneale really wants us to think about this one. There are plausible and satisfying explanations but you have to tease them out and you have to think about what you’ve seen and you have to think about both Lucy and Buddyboy. It’s not that there’s no strangeness here, but it’s not the obvious strangeness people expect from straightforward horror. This episode made me think long and hard about what it could mean, and I think that actually makes it great television.

The Dummy is another indication of the unconventionality of Kneale’s approach. Clyde Boyd (Bernard Horsfall) is an actor falling apart. His last chance is to play the monster known as the Dummy in yet another low-budget horror flick. The trouble really starts when he spots Peter Wager (Simon Oates) in the studio. Wager is the man who stole Boyd’s wife. Boyd falls apart completely but this shooting has to go ahead and harassed producer 'Bunny' Nettleton (Clive Swift) manages to convince Boyd to complete the scene. The result is mayhem, the police have to be called, there’s a dead man lying on the studio floor and Wager is running around with a shotgun threatening to shoot Boyd.

The clue to what has happened is provided by journalist Joan Eastgate (Lillias Walker) who is on set hoping to interview Boyd. She talks about tribesmen who wear masks in religious ceremonies and how it’s the mask that ends up wearing the man rather than the other way around. That’s more or less what happens here. Boyd’s whole personality disintegrates and he becomes the monster, the Dummy. It’s not just his money problems and his wife leaving him, he also has to face the failure of his career as an actor. The only successful roles he’s ever had having been playing the Dummy, playing the entire part encased in a rubber suit. The Dummy is more real than he is.

It’s great to see Clive Swift in a complex ambiguous part and doing it extremely well. Thorley Walters adds fun as the pompous but rather ridiculous Shakepearian actor turning up for a day’s work and a pay cheque.

This is a serious and tragic story. Don’t be misled by the silliness of the monster costume. That was probably a swipe by Nigel Kneale at Doctor Who, a TV series he despised.

Special Offer is a horror story set in a small supermarket. Noreen (Pauline Quirke) is a socially awkward clumsy teenager who seems to make a mess of everything she does, whether it’s packing shelves or working the checkouts. Accidents seem to happen around her. The story manager, the slimy Mr Grimley (Geoffrey Bateman), is exasperated with her. Even worse, Noreen has a crush on him, while Grimley is pursuing the other checkout operator, glamorous dolly bird Linda. Noreen claims it’s an animal causing all the trouble. A small furry animal that looks quite a bit like the company’s cartoon mascot, Briteway Billy.

Nobody believes her but then things start happening that can’t be blamed on her, and the other staff members can hear a small animal scuttling about in the store. Mr Grimley is out of his depth and calls on the grocery chain’s personnel manager, Mr Liversedge (Wensley Pithey), for help. Mr Liversedge thinks they’re dealing with something akin to a poltergeist although in this case it’s more a paranormal than a supernatural phenomenon. He thinks Noreen is unconsciously making these things happen.

This episode starts out rather whimsically although with an edge of pathos. Very gradually the mood shifts to become more menacing. The terror when it comes is still mixed with whimsy which gives the story an interesting flavour. I like the idea of a small supermarket as a setting for horror, with tins of baked beans and boxes of cereal used as engines of destruction. And of course Mr Liversedge’s theory is that the terror’s starting point is Noreen’s hopeless love for Mr Grimley. 17-year-old Pauline Quirke’s performance is extraordinarily good, subtle but emotionally powerful. Quite a good episode.

What Big Eyes
begins with a young over-keen RSPCA inspector becoming convinced that an animal trader is up to something shady. He finds it hard to believe that three timber wolves would really have ended up in a tiny pet shop. He discovers that the pet shop’s owner, an elderly eccentric would-be scientist named Leo Raymount (Patrick Magee), really did obtain those wolves. But why? The answer has to do with Raymount’s bizarre theories about lycanthropy. Weird but oddly moving episode.

In During Barty's Party a middle-aged woman is worried that there may be a rat in the cellar. Possibly two rats. Her husband isn’t too worried at first - his wife is rather nervous. Then it becomes obvious that there are more than two rats. A lot more. His wife is even more worried. She thinks these rats are not just ordinary rats. She thinks they have evolved much greater intelligence.

This is a standard “what if nature turned against us” story, although it’s well executed. This is the least weird episode and for that reason I find it the least interesting.

Final Thoughts

Beasts is Kneale pushing the boundaries of the genre and giving us monster stories that defy all our expectations about monster stories. A strange offbeat unsettling series. Highly recommended.

Beasts is available on DVD from Network.

Friday 3 March 2023

The Avengers, four early Mrs Gale episodes

Some early Cathy Gale episodes of The Avengers, from late 1962 and early 1963. They feature what I call Steed Mark 2. Steed Mark 1, seen in the one or two surviving first season episodes, is a rather nasty piece of work with an edge of sadism to his character. He’s a spy, espionage is a dirty game and he plays it dirty. With the second season and the introduction of two female co-stars (Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale and Julie Stevens as Venus Smith were intended to appear in alternate episodes) the personality of Steed changed somewhat. He became more charming and there was plenty of witty banter with his female co-stars. Steed was still far more ruthless and manipulative than the Steed Mark 3 most people are accustomed to from the Emma Peel era but he was ruthless and manipulative in a charming way.

Steed would continue to evolve, gradually becoming a dandy with a love for vintage cars and the finer things of life. Interestingly enough he does not yet have his Bentley. In Traitor in Zebra he drives a very nice 1930s Lagonda.

He would also slowly become more obviously upper-class, more obviously a polished well-educated gentleman, albeit one with very few moral scruples.

Initially no-one was quite sure how Honor Blackman was to play Cathy Gale. The idea of having an expert in unarmed combat with a penchant for black leather emerged gradually during the first Cathy Gale season (May 1962 to March 1963).

The relationship between Steed and Mrs Gale was exceptionally interesting. She doesn’t really trust him completely, and with good reason. He manipulates her and he sometimes neglects to tell her things that she really is entitled to know.

The reason The Avengers lasted so long and became increasingly successful has a lot to do with the way the series was constantly evolving. The basic setup remained but the David Keel, Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and Tara King eras all have their own flavour. The differences between the Cathy Gale and Emma Peel eras will be startling to those who are only familiar with the Emma Peelers.

Traitor in Zebra

Traitor in Zebra was written by John Gilbert and aired in November 1962. There’s a security leak in a top-secret defence establishment, HMS Zebra, which deals with laser tracking systems. A young sub-lieutenant named Crane has been accused of espionage. Steed and Mrs Gale have the job of finding out if he’s really the traitor. Steed goes undercover as a naval psychiatrist and Mrs Gale as a research chemist.

The local village is a small tight-knit community and the circle of possible suspects is fairly small.

This is early Avengers so it’s a straightforward spy thriller plot without any elements of the surreal or the fantastic. There is some gadgetry but it’s all plausible technology. In fact the technical stuff basically makes sense.

The methods by which the secrets are passed is quite ingenious.

It’s always fun to see William Gaunt (later to star in The Champions). He plays another young officer who is keen to help clear the name of his friend Crane.

It builds to a very satisfying very tense finale in which Steed’s ruthlessness is very much in evidence.

There’s quite a high body count. At this stage The Avengers was still a fairly hard-edged spy series that portrayed espionage as a game in which nice people often get killed, and the good guys can’t afford to be too squeamish about using violence.

The problem with this episode is that John Gilbert’s script is a by-the-numbers spy story and all the plot twists can be seen coming. In fact the viewer more or less knows exactly what’s going on early on, although Steed and Mrs Gale obviously don’t. It’s a competent episode.


Intercrime was scripted by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke. It went to air in December 1962. A couple of safe-crackers are murdered on the job, or at least one is murdered and the other left for dead. The survivor, Palmer, provides Steed with the first clues to what’s going on. It’s already suspected that an international crime syndicate is operating in Britain. There’s been a string of major robberies and the MOs don’t fit with the habits of any known local criminals.

Palmer, in a semi-delirious state, lets slip some important information. A key operative in the crime syndicate, Hilda Stern, is about to arrive from Germany. She is arrested and is to be deported but Steed gets a brainwave. Why can’t Mrs Gale impersonate Hilda Stern and infiltrate the organisation. Mrs Gale is not happy about this idea at all but is pressured by Steed into agreeing (typical of the uneasy relationship between them in this season).

As you might expect Cathy’s fears that this was going to be an insanely dangerous idea prove to be well-founded.

The weakness of the script is that Intercrime is so ruthless that inevitably some of its employees are going to turn against it.

This is a solid enough episode with some decent tension (Cathy Gale really does get into a very sticky situation). The plot is routine but the idea of an international crime super-syndicate is a good one. And Intercrime really does seem like a formidable enemy.

It’s interesting to notice how feminine Cathy Gale looks. Skirts and very feminine hairdos. This was not yet the black leather-clad Cathy Gale. This is also a Mrs Gale who uses guns rather than judo to deal with bad guys.

Quite a good episode.

The Big Thinker

The Big Thinker was written by Martin Woodhouse and screened in December 1962. There are problems with a new experimental super-computer called Plato. The problems might be caused by sabotage.

Cathy inveigles her way into Plato’s domain by posing as an anthropologist hoping to use Plato to translate dead languages. Computer whizz-kid Dr Kearns is an obvious suspect. He’s brilliant but erratic, he chases women, he drinks and he gambles. All of which could make him susceptible to pressure to betray the project.

There are some really nice scenes in this one, especially when Cathy’s flat gets broken into. The gambling scene between Mrs Gale and Broster is also excellent.

What’s nice is that the computer is more than just a McGuffin. It plays a central role in the story and also becomes a character. The idea that Plato isn’t just a computer but in fact the whole complex is also rather nifty. It’s not very original but it’s made to work here. You get the impression that Martin Woodhouse has actually put a bit of thought into the computer angle.

Mrs Gale is still very feminine but she has picked up a few unarmed combat skills.

Anthony Booth is terrific as Dr Kearns. He very wisely doesn’t try to soften the character - Kearns is arrogant and obnoxious but he’s vastly entertaining and the fact that nobody likes him plays an important story in the story.


Warlock was written by Doreen Montgomery and went to air in January 1963. This was the episode that was supposed to introduce Mrs Gale but the producers were not satisfied and ordered a lot of reshooting.

In this episode Steed and Mrs Gale tangle with black magic. A physicist suffers what appears to be a stroke, but it isn’t. He then disappears. Steed found him clutching a hex symbol.

International spies (headed by a sinister fellow called Markel) are using black magician Cosmo Gallion to induce scientists to part with vital secrets. Mrs Gale just happens to be an expert in psychic and occult phenomena.

What’s interesting is that Gallion and Markel have totally separate and mutually contradictory agendas. Markel wants a secret rocket fuel formula; Gallion wants occult power.

It ends with Gallion performing a black magic ritual at which it appears that he intends to sacrifice Mrs Gale. The ritual scene tries to be as sexy and you could get away with on British TV in 1963, with a blonde girl dancing in a very skimpy costume. Wearing nothing but very brief panties on her bottom half was pretty startling in 1963. The mixing of voodoo and black magic is amusing and adds some spice. Of course all the occult stuff is a hopeless mishmash worthy of the Sunday papers but this is television and it’s supposed to be silly fun.

You have to remember that in the 60s the British press was continually creating moral panics about witchcraft in modern England.

The relationship between Steed and Mrs Gale is not yet clearly defined. She seems to be very disapproving of Steed at this stage. Steed is very obviously hoping to seduce her.

A well-crafted very enjoyable episode.

Final Thoughts

Four pretty good episodes with Warlock being the best of them.

I've reviewed other Cathy Gale episodes -in these posts - the Cathy Gale era The Mauritius Penny/Mr Teddy Bear and the Cathy Gale era.