Weird Night (BBC Two, 1994)
In the first of a new regular column looking back at the singular weirdness of the 1990s, Graham Williamson explores Roger Corman's takeover of BBC Two from December 1994 to bring us Weird Night. Welcome to Weird '90s...
Occasionally I wonder what happened to the fainting goats of Nebraska. I remember them from the Weird Review of the Year, a programme that went out on December 17th 1994 as the opening salvo in BBC Two’s Weird Night.
During the 1990s, this kind of themed evening was common on British television – a whole night of TV fenced off to explore a theme, a show, a genre or something else worth celebrating. In practice, most of them didn’t live up to the special-occasion billing, and by the turn of the millennium they were thought of as cheap filler: no new programming, just a handful of obvious repeats and an interview or two.
Weird Night is different. It comes early enough in the cycle for the schedulers to have put real effort into it, from quantity – eleven hours, from 8:30 on Saturday night to 7:30 on Sunday morning(!) – to quality. Each show has a moody introduction from Roger Corman, as well as some truly bizarre channel branding. Between-show links were handled not by one of BBC Two’s usual announcers, but by a computer-generated floating baby’s head that spoke with the disturbingly calm voice of an adult woman. It’s worth watching Weird Night just for these glorious exercises in publicly-funded vaporwave, and it is my happy duty to inform you that all of Weird Night’s original content can be found on YouTube. 
The night kicked off with the aforementioned Weird Review of the Year, and ended with a movie marathon including rare TV outings for Martin (US, George A Romero, 1977) and The Grandmother (US, David Lynch, 1970). The Weird Review of the Year is an absolute joy, with Tom Conti’s narration giving just the right arched-eyebrow tone to sentences like ‘In Pennsylvania, it rained feathers.’ The interviewees are a broad range of characters: the family whose home was invaded by ball lightning are reserved and genteel enough to fit into Peter Greenaway’s lightning documentary Act of God (UK, Greenaway, 1980). The couple who were attacked by a mystery big cat, on the other hand, definitely sound like they’re enjoying their moment of fame.
In between most of the shows, there’s a strand called Strange Days, where ‘ordinary people tell extraordinary tales.’ The tales are certainly extraordinary – the researchers must have rejoiced when they found the woman who claims she was granted wishes by a naked troll. The tellers, though, are more uniformly upper-middle-class than the ones in the Weird Review of the Year. We are still several years away from ‘reality’ and ‘relatability’ being the organising principles of British television.
This is part of why Weird Night has a lasting hold on me – it is such a perfect time capsule of its era. The whole concept of a theme night has been rendered obsolete by streaming. The theme, too, is clearly of its time, an attempt to ride the same wave of pre-millennium anxiety that made The X-Files a hit. But any show can be ‘of its time’ – done artlessly, we call such things ‘dated’. From the Portishead soundtrack down, the makers of Weird Night are aware that this marginal material somehow encapsulates its era. Watching Weird Night in 2021 is a way of reminding yourself what the 1990s were really about, a small act of resistance against the efforts to homogenise the era of grunge, Gen X and anti-globalisation into a nostalgia product.
To which you might say: so what? What use is there in accurately remembering the 1990s if you weren’t there – or, for that matter, if you were there and you hated it? Well, firstly I’d argue that the aesthetic is a pleasure in and of itself. The weird end of the ’90s – let’s call it Weird ’90s, for consistency – has its own look: the neon-noir of 1980s high style, corrupted by the grotesquerie of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. It’s in everything from Sega Megadrive commercials to Jeunet and Caro, and it’s all over W.S.H. (UK, Bill Eagles, 1994), a short film about urban legends shown as part of Weird Night. A shot where a doctor glowers into an ultra-wide lens will have connoisseurs of Weird ’90s visual tropes grinning.
W.S.H.‘s urban myths can now be read as a precursor of online fake news, though to my eyes the differences are more telling than the similarities. Its protagonist, the folklorist Professor Pulling (Ron Rifkin), acknowledges the social and political anxieties underlying popular urban myths – yet the key word remains ‘underlying’. They are not nakedly partisan, or overtly hateful. They’re an organic, grassroots phenomenon, rather than something cynically designed to push an agenda.
Admittedly there is a risk of rose-tinted glasses here. Pulling’s urban myth collection features sinister foreigners, violent gangs, hyper-sexual African-Americans, and gay men doing ‘terrible things with little cuddly pets.’ The link between fringe or paranormal culture and reactionary politics is not new – as early as 1943, George Orwell was pondering the links between ‘hatred of democracy and a tendency to believe in crystal-gazing, citing an issue of a French fascist magazine which contained ‘thirty-eight advertisements of clairvoyants.’ 
Faced with this reality, the Weird ’90s usually averts its eyes. Weird Night would be nothing without an X-Files episode, and here it’s ‘Fire’ (Larry Shaw, Fox, 1993), whose pyrokinetic villain Cecil l’Ively is blamed for the real-life 1992 Windsor Castle fire. The X-Files did an awful lot of this ripped-from-the-headlines stuff, creating paranoid Roman à clefs about the Oklahoma City bombing and FEMA at the same time as America’s militia movement was creating its own stories about them. The Weird Review of the Year mentions Roswell as its token conspiracy, but not Ruby Ridge or Waco. Weird ’90s media wanted the outlaw glamour of discussing fringe subjects while keeping a nervous distance from the characters who were increasingly populating said fringe.
The moral voice of Weird Night comes right at the end in Weird Thoughts, where Tony Wilson chairs a panel of experts debating why the 1990s seem so very strange. There are a lot of familiar faces here – the late James Randi, Fortean Times founder Bob Rickard, esoteric scholar Lynn Picknett – but today the biggest name is the one hovering around the back of the gathering: a young Mary Beard.
As a respectable academic, Professor Beard was presumably brought in to back up Randi, but her views are interestingly hard to define. She agrees with Picknett’s suggestion that ‘weird’ should be reclassified as ‘other’, noting this is how the ancient world referred to overseas lands. This suggestion that UFOs should be bracketed with, say, Perth shows why Beard, particularly in this company, is a very modern thinker. Her instinct is to expand categories, to become more inclusive, to suspend judgement rather than isolate things on the fringe. I think that’s a noble pursuit, and yet I can’t help but be seduced by the determinedly dated weirdness on show here. For all the Weird ’90s were, like Cecil l’Ively, playing with fire, they had values worth reviving.
One reason why the 1990s look stranger in retrospect is that they were the last outcrop of pre-globalised culture, an attitude that reverberates throughout Weird Night. Clips from American news programmes, which would now be rendered in the same soulless HD as British news, instead appear on fabulously awful NTSC, a blizzard of unstable colours announcing a transmission from another world. Ostensibly modern people turn out to know enough about folklore to understand why a swarm of bees have gathered on a house wall, or what a naked troll looks like. The interstitial graphics, full of cornball Americana, associate ‘weirdness’ with the vast, still-exotic open spaces of other countries. It’s enough to validate Beard’s definition of ‘other’ on its own.
This isn’t just a retrospective view. The feeling that we were entering a coming age of global corporate blandness, what Damon Albarn termed ‘Coca-Colonisation’, was absolutely palpable during the 1990s. Resistance to it lies at the heart of Weird Night‘s most affecting segment, Mike Barker’s documentary The Last American Freak Show.
Shot in a head-on style perhaps inspired by Pawel Pawlikowski’s early BBC documentaries (but which now recalls Wes Anderson) The Last American Freak Show sees bearded ladies, human pincushions and other carnival attractions talking about their dying way of life. The illustrated woman might have achieved freakhood through the tattooist’s needle rather than an accident of birth, but she feels deep solidarity with the giants and living torsos she works alongside. She is concerned that too many potential freaks are being aborted, an anxiety that, like all Weird ’90s anxieties, was echoed by The X-Files .
The modern eye may flinch at some of The Last American Freak Show‘s more voyeuristic scenes, like the obese man showering with a hosepipe. At the same time, when Weird Night was broadcast the hottest trend in mainstream fashion was ‘heroin chic’ – i.e., starving yourself so people might mistake you for a drug addict. Compared to that, is a freak show such an obscenity? Freaks are the ultimate anti-influencers; they don’t want you to imitate them, they want you to take delight in their uniqueness. They are certainly part of the ‘other’, but not because they want to be normalised or accepted into the mainstream: their power comes from their position on the fringe. No wonder the bearded lady says she’s proud to be a freak.
As the CGI baby’s huge, uncanny head soothingly told me I was about to watch something disturbing, I yearned for a 1990s hauntology; a form of nostalgia that aims not to smooth away the obscure, disturbing or divisive parts of its chosen decade in the way that ’60s and ’80s nostalgia often does, but to unearth and celebrate them, to ask why it happened then and what it has to say to us now. The other still exists. We can live there, with the freaks and the fainting goats, if we choose to.
 Orwell, George, ‘W.B. Yeats’, Horizon magazine, January 1943
 The X-Files: Humbug, dir. Kim Manners, Fox, March 31st 1995