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A taste of the scary

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome

It's Hallowe'en. The long winter evenings are drawing in, and dark shadows gather round us, so time to look at scary, frightening and unsettling programmes (and I won’t mention George Galloway pretending to be a cat – that wasn’t on the BBC).

The tradition of ghost stories and horror tales goes back into the mists of antiquity, and broadcasting didn’t take too long before it started sharing them with the nation.  The first mention of ghost stories is in Some Ghost Stories of the Midlands told by John Hingeley on 5IT Birmingham in December 1923, and thereafter ghost stories at Christmas start to become a bit of a regular occurrence.  Famed early radio storyteller A.J. Alan (aka Allan) told one in 1924 and 1925. 

In the 1970s, there was a television series of one-off plays called A Ghost Story for Christmas, often based on stories by M.R. James, as was the 1968 Omnibus dramatisation of Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You.  This was adapted and produced by Jonathan Miller, who had earlier in 1966 made a television film of Alice in Wonderland, which with its odd, dreamlike atmosphere tends towards the ‘unsettling’ rather than the ‘frightening’ end of the scale.

Radio continued its tradition of scary stories in the 30s and 40s, with Algernon Blackwood reading his own horror and ghost tales.  He had been a writer since the turn of the 20th Century, and first broadcast in 1934. Towards the end of his life he also appeared on television reading his Saturday Night Story.  A more regular series, starting in 1943 at the height of the Second World War, was Appointment with Fear, a series of horror and suspense stories by various authors, including classic works by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, although most of the early episodes were written by John Dickson Carr.  The series was noted for the sepulchral delivery of Valentine Dyall, who introduced the drama adaptations, and was known as The Man in Black.

Television was slow to embrace ghost and horror stories, perhaps because their lurid possibilities would have been more graphic and shocking in the visual medium.  The production of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine in 1949 gave an opportunity for one of TV’s first monsters to appear, the subterranean Morlocks, but they probably didn’t give anyone any nightmares. 

The same cannot be said for the first great television science fiction serial, The Quatermass Experiment, which rattled the nation in the summer of 1953.  Following the Coronation coverage, many more people had television sets and were exposed for the first time to a horror serial, with writer Nigel Kneale’s tale of a British space rocket which is infected by an alien organism, possessing the mind and later the body of one of its astronauts. 

Kneale was to create an even greater sensation with his 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  More satire than science-fiction, this created a storm in the newspapers and in Parliament with the terrifying scene of the hero, Winston Smith, being threatened with torture using his greatest fear – rats.  The dramatisation brought Orwell’s book to a much wider audience, and helped to implant concepts and phrases like ‘thought police’, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ in the national consciousness.

The scariness of science fiction came to the screen in 1949 with The Time Machine

The following year saw a follow-up to The Quatermass Experiment, called Quatermass II (possibly the earliest use of a sequel being called ‘Something + Number’), which again featured some unpleasant scenes of body horror, with people being taken over by an alien parasite landing on Earth in hollow meteorites.  Particularly gruesome scenes included a storage tank filled with writhing alien creatures, and a man covered in corrosive black slime, staggering down the stairs on the outside of the container.  At least one episode, as we know from the surviving recording, was preceded by a warning that the programme was not suitable for children and those of a nervous disposition.

Kneale was still not finished with his main character, the conscience-troubled rocket scientist Bernard Quatermass, and he returned in a third adventure in 1958, called Quatermass and the Pit.  Here, demolition work in Knightsbridge uncovers what is first assumed to be a Second World War bomb, but it turns out to be evidence that Earth has been visited by Martians in ancient times.  The serial turns into a kind of ghost story, although one that tries to give a rational, if fantastical, explanation for psychic phenomena, as well as for racism and man’s inhumanity to man.  The standout horror scene shows a workman afflicted by unearthly sounds (an early job for the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop) and psychokinetic attacks as he staggers towards sanctuary in a church.

Much of Kneale’s work for the BBC was composed of single plays, many of which had a supernatural or horror element.  1963’s The Road, set in 1770, has a supposed haunting turn out to be a premonition of nuclear holocaust in the near future.  The Year of the Sex Olympics in 1968 saw a future society where television was used to subdue the population, and showed a ‘reality’ tv show where a couple and a child are exiled to an island and threatened by a psychopath.  Perhaps Kneale’s best post-Quatermass piece is The Stone Tape, broadcast on Christmas Day 1972.  This is in a way a ghost story, but rationalising ghosts as a kind of recording trapped in the fabric of buildings and places – but still with terrifying consequences. 

There was a kind of spate of adult-oriented horror and supernatural dramas around this time.  One of the earliest is the series Late Night Horror, a collection of half hour single plays shown on BBC2 in 1968.  The science fiction anthology series Out of the Unknown, which began in 1965, developed into a part sci-fi, part horror series by its later series in 1969 and 1971.  Similar stories were shown in Dead of Night in 1972, and less overtly fantastical series including as No Exit and Menace.

1977 saw both the anthology series Supernatural, in which people who had had horrific experiences told their stories to members of the Victorian ‘Club of the Damned’ in an attempt to be admitted to its ranks, and one of the best productions of Count Dracula, starring Louis Jourdan as the title character and Frank Finlay as Van Helsing.

The Nightmare Man was a 1981 thriller serial about a psychopath on the loose on an isolated Scottish island – but is he in fact an alien… or something else?  Tightly directed by Douglas Camfield, it has a number of chilling and horrifically violent scenes – and all transmitted before the watershed!  The same year also saw a well-realised version of The Day of the Triffids starring John Duttine, with atmospheric sequences of blinded humanity, and surprisingly convincing giant walking plants.  

One of the most unsettling BBC horror drama’s was 1992’s Ghostwatch.  Framed in the context of a live broadcast of the investigation of a haunted suburban house, and starring real television personalities such as Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith and Sarah Greene, its mixture of reality and fiction in the manner of Orson Welles’s 1930s production of The War of the Worlds, and genuinely unnerving depiction of a ghostly presence, never breaks the illusion it is actually happening, so much so that the BBC decided it should never be repeated.

Proper scary Victorian ghost stories - television series Supernatural

The longest-running and best known of the BBC’s ‘scary’ series is of course Doctor Who.  From its outset in 1963 it was famous for terrifying children (in a good way), most famously with the Daleks.  Conceived from the outset as not being the standard bug-eyed monster, they were introduced at the end of the first episode of the second Doctor Who adventure by the sight of the notorious sink-plunger arm approaching the Doctor’s companion Barbara, seen from the Dalek’s point of view.  Barbara naturally enough screams lustily.  The following episodes built on their menacing and inhuman threat, as they ‘exterminated’ without compunction and plotted the destruction of their fellow inhabitants on the planet Skaro, the Thals. One episode saw the creature inside a Dalek machine being removed – its hideous appearance being indicated by the horrified reactions of the Tardis crew, and a brief glimpse of its alien claw (actually a rubber gorilla hand bought from a joke shop).

The series managed to build a reputation for family-friendly horror that saw it win comfortably healthy ratings throughout the 60s and 70s, with occasional dips as lethargy and over-familiarity crept in, but Doctor Who entered the national consciousness as a source of mild but compulsive thrills and scares. 

Arguably more effective in black and white, from its abstract title sequence and innovative radiophonic music, Doctor Who used all the tricks of fairy tales and suspense films to literally have the nation’s children hiding behind sofas and cushions, but yet keep watching.  Occasionally it went too far – in 1971 questions were asked in Parliament when one alien monster was disguised as a policeman and another as a kind of doll in the adventure Terror of the Autons

The new, colour adventures starring Jon Pertwee that started in 1970 began with a more adult tone, though this was soon toned down into a cosier and more fantastical version, but still allowing the endless parade of grotesque and inventive monsters to continue.  With the advent of Tom Baker as the lead actor in 1974, a new production team began to make parodies/pastiches of well-known horror staples such as Frankenstein, with moments of gruesome violence which attracted the ire of Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers and Listeners Association, and led to a toning down of later 70s episodes.  

The 80s saw the series gradually fade away as audiences’ expectations post-Star Wars were not satisfied by BBC budgets, and an increasingly inward-looking approach, and a move away from its traditional Saturday slot, saw the audience dwindle away.  Effectively cancelled in 1989, after a one-off TV film made in America in 1996, the series was finally brought back in 2005 to surprising levels of acclaim and appreciation, and new generations were thrilled and scared as they had been in earlier decades.   

And yet – despite such effective creatures as the Weeping Angels that first appeared in the episode Blink, and the gas-mask clad small boy asking “Are you my mummy?” in 2005 adventure The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances  the new series is a product of a different time. The loss of the cliff-hanger aspect of the format (though this is making a comeback in the current series) lessened the tension for the viewer, as does one-off stories so there is little time to establish and develop situations and characters.

We live in an era now where it’s possible to depict greater and greater extremes of violence and horror on screen, whether fictional or factual.   Much time and imagination is expended on special effects whether ‘real’ or computer-generated. 

Has this resulted in scarier dramas? Or are we too used to be being artificially frightened? Let us know your views in the space below.

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