Watching horror on television often provides our first scary viewing experience, whether it’s chancing upon a film late at night or the classic practice of watching Doctor Who from behind the sofa. Within the safety of our own homes, our televisions have provided glimpses of monsters and otherworldly sights and sounds that stay with us long after we’ve graduated to seeing horror films at the cinema.
British television has delighted in giving the audience at home the chills ever since the earliest broadcasts of ghost stories from authors like Algernon Blackwood, and horror on the small screen has been prolific since the boon in series like Late Night Horror (1968) and Mystery and Imagination (1966-70) in the late 1960s.
Frequently confined to a studio in that period, a TV play exploring dark and scary themes offered maximum impact on a minimum budget, and audiences seemed to have a thirst for dreadful tales.
Adaptations of ghost stories and gothic novels were persistently popular, and in the 1970s heyday of TV horror the schedules were strewn with anthology series which gave TV writers the opportunity to give classic stories new twists and create new monsters of their own.
Series like Thriller (1973-76) and Armchair Thriller (1978-80) dealt in mysteries and murders, but also had several stories which featured stalking themes more akin to slasher films. At the same time, even children’s television was awash with ghouls and sinister goings-on in shows like Ace of Wands (1970-72) and Children of the Stones (1977).
Anthologies seemed to go out of style in the 80s, but single plays like The Woman in Black (1989) and Ghostwatch (1992) were still sensational, and burned themselves in the memories of many young viewers.
More recently, series with horror themes have found success when aimed at younger audiences – though many older viewers are still watching – and our appetite for horror is still going strong. It seems it doesn’t matter how many channels and options we may have – we still enjoy being scared from the supposed safety of our sofas.
Here are 10 examples of British TV at its most terrifying.
Mystery and Imagination – ‘Dracula’ (1968)
An early anthology series which began in 1966, Mystery and Imagination presented adaptations of classic tales by authors like Sheridan Le Fanu (Carmilla) and M.R. James (The Tractate Middoth). Sadly, like much television of the period, many episodes were not saved for posterity and only a handful survive.
Among these, Denholm Elliott makes a dashing Dracula in one of the earliest TV adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel. In this version the characters of Renfield and Jonathan Harker are conflated and Corin Redgrave does a great job of teetering on the edge of madness, especially after an encounter with some seriously uncanny brides of Dracula. The Count himself meets a nasty end and the special effects rendering his rotting body are really rather gruesome.
Robin Redbreast (1970)
Quintessential modern woman Norah (Anna Cropper) is taking some time away from the urban grind following a failed relationship, but her country cottage proves to be less of a rural idyll than she expected, and more of a magnet for sinister neighbours. Norah’s attraction to a younger local man has dangerous consequences which she can’t comprehend and all around, ancient rituals stake their claim on the present.
This TV foray into folk horror (now available on BFI DVD) has been compared to The Wicker Man (1973) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and shares a sense of foreboding with these films, as the net closes in on the lonely outsider. Writer John Bowen also contributed to the BBC’s Dead of Night series, as well as writing two Ghost Stories for Christmas.
The Stone Tape (1972)
A team of scientists take up residence in a mansion as they experiment with a new sound recording format, but programmer Jill (Jane Asher) sees the ghost of a woman and soon members of the team are disturbed by the sound of screaming.
This unnerving classic written by Nigel Kneale marries his recurring themes of technology and the supernatural while theorising on the origins of hauntings. The Stone Tape also has an interesting gendered approach to psychic phenomena as Jill struggles to be heard in the male dominated work environment of the company. Peter Sasdy’s direction keeps the atmosphere suitably claustrophobic and the terrific performances enhance the cutting edge sound and effects from the Radiophonic Workshop.
Ghost Stories for Christmas – ‘Lost Hearts’ (1973)
Each of the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas is a classic, but ‘Lost Hearts’ could be the most horrific. Young Stephen (Simon Gipps-Kent) is sent to live with his eccentric relative Mr Abney (Joseph O’Conor), but his benefactor has disturbing uses for children, as the ghosts of two former residents can prove.
Like the ghosts in other M.R. James tales, the two pale children in ‘Lost Hearts’ are not harmless and their intentions are unclear for much of the story. With their long nails and steady creeping pace, the spectres are frightening enough even before they reveal their gaping chests – their hearts being, of course, lost. A single viewing of this ghost story will also render the hurdy-gurdy sinister for ever more.
Beasts – ‘During Barty’s Party’ (1976)
An anthology series with the loose theme of animals, Beasts is another entry from the masterful Nigel Kneale. The creatures featured include a movie monster and a strange mummified body exhumed from the wall of a cottage but, in what may be the most terrifying episode, rats make formidable villains in ‘During Barty’s Party’. A middle-class couple in their country home hear reports on the radio of giant rats in the area and then there comes the sound of scratching under the floorboards…
Director Don Taylor had experience in dealing with horror in enclosed spaces following his contribution to the BBC series Dead of Night with ‘The Exorcism’. Here, the tension mounts as the radio continues to play the dreadful DJ Barty’s show, and the terror invoked by the unseen horde is unbeatable in its simplicity.
Tales of the Unexpected – ‘Royal Jelly’ (1980)
Though the tales were frequently not so unexpected, the series, which began by adapting Roald Dahl’s short stories for television, was hugely popular and still had its highlights (and memorable theme tune).
Those who remember the series have their own favourite episode, and ‘Royal Jelly’ is mine. The story revolves around a mother (Susan George) who is concerned that her new born baby is not thriving. Her husband (Timothy West) is a beekeeper who is overly fond of his produce and has some novel ideas about how it could be put to use. With its body horror preoccupations, this episode falls squarely within the realm of horror and will have you wondering about the power of superfoods. Hokey? Yes, but still creepy.
This sleek and serious Channel 4 series from the 90s featured a crack team of operatives unravelling a vampire conspiracy while dealing with their own personal bloodsucker-related tragedies. Michael Colefield (Jack Davenport) is enlisted after his best friend disappears mysteriously just before his wedding. The runaway groom in question is played by Stephen Moyer, in a role as a moody vampire boyfriend a full decade before True Blood.
Ultraviolet takes a scientific approach to vampires, referred to as ‘Code Vs’, and rainy London is their hunting ground. Among the many tense moments of the series, a particular highlight sees Vaughan (played by Idris Elba) trapped in a locked warehouse with four coffins timed to spring open at any moment. As well as being action-packed, Ultraviolet demonstrated the danger of getting involved with the emotionally unavailable undead.
The League of Gentlemen – Christmas Special (2000)
Televisual trips to Royston Vasey were always hilarious and frequently disturbing, and the heady brew of character comedy and visual gags was given extra potency with the inclusion of some shocking moments and the occasional murder. This magic formula was never better than in The League of Gentlemen Christmas Special (2000) which takes the format of an Amicus-style anthology film in which characters relate their tales of Christmas horror to Reverend Bernice (Reece Shearsmith).
Vet Dr Chinnery (Mark Gatiss) tells of how his family is the subject of a curse that brings death to animals, while a former choirboy of Herr Lipp’s (Steve Pemberton) ran into a horde of vampires on an exchange trip. Curses and vampires are not out of place at a Royston Vasey Christmas, but a proper shudder may be reserved for the appearance of the truly horrible Papa Lazarou (Shearsmith again). Gentleman Mark Gatiss went on to create his own chilling anthology series, Crooked House (2008), which deserves an honourable mention.
Being Human (2008-2013)
Beginning with a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing a flat in Bristol, Being Human took full advantage of the range between comedy and drama to explore everything from imminent supernatural threats to the human race to squabbles with flatmates. Faltering slightly in later series, the programme was strongest when its main characters were struggling with their human and inhuman natures. Russell Tovey’s George was a particularly tormented modern werewolf, and in its finest moments Being Human was spine-chilling but tender too.
The Fades (2011)
In an epic battle between the righteous Angelics and the vengeful Fades, teenager Paul (Iain de Caestecker) has frightening visions of the future and discovers that he can see the ghosts of the angry dead. Featuring well drawn teenage characters and nightmarish effects, The Fades offered an essentially British take on the apocalypse in a suburban setting – with some gory flesh-eating thrown in for good measure. The final showdown in a shopping centre saw Paul reach the apex of his powers, but as the story was unresolved and The Fades was not renewed for a further series, we’ll never know if the world actually ended…