Once The Thrilling Starts
An interview with Martin Marshall, the writer of a new, in-depth guide to the 1970s anthology series, Thriller. Andrew Screen quizzes the author about the long journey to print and just how he set about writing such a tome...
Released without much fanfare shortly before the end of 2020, ‘A Thriller in Every Corner’ is a new book which chronicles the production history of the 1970s ATV anthology series Thriller. Long in development, the series has been extensively researched from script-to-screen and beyond and the book also draws upon exclusive interviews with those involved and existing paperwork. It is possibly one of the best production histories of a TV series I’ve ever read.
Martin was born in Scarborough but left in the mid-1980s to study chemistry at the University of Bradford. After graduating he worked as sub-editor for a science publisher in London for two decades before returning to his home town to work in the local county library service. He left the service in 2017 and as Martin notes: “It’s in the last three years that I’ve finally had the time to devote to my book on ‘Thriller’, by far my biggest, most personal and satisfying project!”
Horrified: Why did you want to write a book about Thriller? What attracted you to the series?
Martin: My first encounter with the series was not during its premiere run on ITV in the 1970s, our one household TV was firmly tuned to the Saturday cops show on BBC-1 like Ironside and Kojak and, as a child, I had no say in the matter!
However, during the early-1980s, whilst I was at Sixth-Form and then Uni, the anthology returned to UK screens albeit regionally and now repeated in the oft-maligned ‘movie’ versions replete with substituted titles comprising rudimentary animated psychedelia or newly shot mini-prologues, a la a Dario Argento-style impishness on a budget! It was the late evening of Saturday 8 January 1983 on Yorkshire Television following FA Cup football highlights that I stumbled upon a suspense drama titled ‘In the Steps of a Dead Man’.
It immediately caught my attention. A soldier rose up from a ‘double’ of his prone corpse, turning sharply away from camera as a discordant ‘crash’ marked the soundtrack of the opening sequence. The narrative that followed proved a revelation, with ‘cuckoo in the nest’ events leading to a stunning climax that combined claustrophobia, a challenging moral dilemma and (arguably) poetic justice. In the weeks that followed, I sought out the sporadic transmissions of these individual extended-length narratives all titled Thriller. The simple but brilliantly executed ‘I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill’ came next followed by the “poker game for your life” tale called ‘The Killing Game’ and then ‘The Carnation Killer’ – a serial killer story that lead into unexpected areas. By now I was hooked and the series never really left my subconscious in the years that followed.
H: The book is very well researched. How long did the book take to research and write?
M: Back in 2011, some speculative enquiries by email (and old fashioned letter) led to three telephone interviews – with Brian Clemens and two Thriller directors, Malcolm Taylor and Peter Jefferies. The resultant memories and anecdotes proved gold dust, but how best to exploit them? Looking back, this really was the beginning of a decade-long process. Working full-time meant limited opportunities. Eventually contacts lead to further leads and ‘gaps’ in the story of Thriller were slowly being filled.
Newspapers now archived online – from regional to international to the ‘trades’ – proved invaluable conduits to contemporary documents and paperwork. Key members of the series fan base also came up trumps. The old adage that research never ends proved true. Many, often unexpected, avenues opened up from the numerous lines of enquiry. Leaving full-time employment in 2017 allowed me to devote the serious hours required in getting the text formally written, edited, formatted, proofread, corrected and finally submitted for publication. My biggest regret is not the time it took but that series creator and chief scriptwriter Brian Clemens, having died in 2015, never got the chance to read a copy.
H: The book is available from Lulu and is not published under any imprint from what I can tell. Did you self-publish the book? Did you approach any publishers? Was it difficult to publish the book yourself?
M: Yes, ‘A THRILLER in Every Corner’ is self-published exclusively through Lulu. I did submit quite a detailed ‘pitch’ to a couple of genre/specialist publishers but interest was sadly not forthcoming and without even an acknowledgment of the submission, rather disheartening. I soon made the decision that my time and efforts were better employed in honing the text and shaping the project for indie publication. I was fortunate to benefit from the splendid, unpaid efforts of a team of three proof-readers. However, I take full responsibility for any errors that have slipped through the net!
The tools that Lulu provides, in particular templates for the cover and the interior file, were not that difficult to work with. I just followed the instructions laboriously! I claim no great skill or ‘eye’ in design, but the cover (utilising a licence-free ‘fish-eye’ lens photo image, the blood-red colour of the series titles and a font approximating the title lettering) I believe represents Thriller accurately and effectively. The cover blurb is honest as to the contents, though maybe that is for others to confirm. I can’t say the process proved particularly arduous but I certainly wouldn’t rule out future projects via a conventional publisher. Any offers considered!
H: Whilst researching / writing did you discover anything that was a surprise to you?
M: One of the most staggering and stark facts that rather stunned me during the research was that, between 1979 and the mid-1990s, the total number of syndicated broadcasts on local North American stations of all the individual instalments (in TV-movie format) totalled more than 13,000! This on top of five years of screenings networked across the US on ABC-TV stations, one of the very few British programmes to date that achieved a network slot on a commercial American network. That ‘second run’ success speaks volumes as to the wisdom of creating the ‘movie’ variants whatever their intrinsic artistic value.
Apart than that, I was consistently enlightened by the personal recollections of those who spoke or corresponded with me whose tales ranged from nicknames applied to certain ATV crew to answering the question that has bewildered many Thriller fans for years namely the real reason for the ‘eccentric’ performance of the American leading lady in the episode ‘Murder Motel’.
H: What are your personal favourite / least favourite episodes of the series and why?
Although it had (and has) a few contenders for the crown, my favourite remains the one I saw first back in January 1983 – ‘In the Steps of a Dead Man’, not only a great Thriller but an excellent example of what can be achieved in television studio drama in any genre. The Dial M for Murder reminiscent episode, ‘The Double Kill’ with another stunning climax; the Grand-Guignol of ‘A Killer in Every Corner’; and the dialogue-free and incredibly tense pursuit at the heart of ‘I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill’ are amongst others very near the summit. My favourite supernatural tale is ‘Nurse Will Make It Better’ starring a pipe smoking Diana Dors and the Rise Krispie wart!
The overtly comedic episode ‘K is for Killing’ (originally penned for a different series entirely) is my least favourite. The ‘atmosphere of unease’, the normal calling card of Thriller is not aided by the flippant tone that dangerously approaches send-up. Elsewhere the anthology was chock full of dark humorous touches that leavened the general tension to far better effect. Possibly through a lack of finesse in the performances, I find the comedy too broad and works against scenes of genuine unease, notably a memorable sequence featuring veteran British film star Jean Kent at the point of insanity! It its favour is the plotline, especially the busy concluding act, but I do side with the majority of fans (if by no means all) that the frivolous tone does the story no great favour. Other than that, occasional episodes where sloppy or uninspired production mechanics let the side down are amongst my other least favourites, one example being ‘The Next Victim’ from the last series.
H: Now that the book is finally out how do feel about it? Is there anything you would change or done differently?
M: Relieved that I managed to complete it! Also quite proud that such a major project didn’t prove beyond my skill – or patience. I think the approach to the material – detailed, even forensic in some areas, yet not overly dry or academic (and containing about the correct level of humour therein) has turned out well and resonated with those that have read the book. So, no real regrets other than perhaps not starting earlier and having the chance to talk to others who passed on in the interim. Getting onto social media earlier may have turned up additional leads, yet could have proved too much a distraction from the task in hand.
H: What reaction have you had to the book so far?
M: It’s been remarkably positive given the number of positive emails, forum and social media comments I’ve received since the book has been available. The project was a very personal one not a primarily commercial venture and I held no firm opinion as to what the general reaction or even ‘demand’ would be. With interest already beyond Britain and the United State, e.g. from Australia, Canada, Belgium, Ireland, Austria, Denmark and France, it’s been quite an ‘international rollercoaster ride’ – but a very enjoyable one, reflecting I suppose the worldwide appeal of Thriller itself.
H: What plans, if any, do you have next? Are you looking to research and write about another series or something different?
M: As an ‘indie’, the publicity and marketing efforts for ‘A THRILLER in Every Corner’ are obviously ongoing! I’m also enjoying a bit of a rest! Looking further forward, much of my interview material and correspondence for Thriller also engendered conversation and commentary about other series and the milieu of British TV of those times in general. There could well be enough first-hand material there for an (albeit more slim-line) ‘Tales from the Telly’ volume. I also have several, somewhat ‘off-kilter’ story themes in my head that could potentially be worked up into a number of fictional short tales. Indications of potential public interest are always welcome and, as mentioned, I’m also open to potential commissions from publishers (there’s a dedicated contact email address at the start of the book), although perhaps not immediately on the huge scale of ‘A THRILLER in Every Corner’!
Our thanks to Martin for sparing some time to answer the questions. For more details and to order a copy of the book, click the image below…
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