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.


  1. Thanks for reviewing this series. I've seen the DVD set advertised a few times, but didn't know anything about it. Horror's not really my thing (unless your name is Boris Karloff) and I'm ambiguous about Nigel Kneale, but I might get this one.

    1. It's such a wildly eccentric oddball series. Kneale was going out of his way to make it unconventional. The episode that most people really hate is Buddyboy and that was the episode that I loved most.

      In terms of extreme unconventionality the only British series of that era with which I can compare it is The Corridor People. The two series are totally different but both are aggressively convention-defying.