Better Dead Than Bored:
Andrew Screen encounters Channel Five's early Millennium low-budget horror anthology, Urban Gothic...
By the turn of the century, the horror anthology format had lain dormant on British terrestrial television for several years before it was unexpectedly revitalised with a hip new attitude by the UK’s newest national broadcaster, Channel Five, with Urban Gothic. The series, created by 23-year-old Tom de Ville, was low budget and designed to be broadcast in a late timeslot, thus enabling it to have a mature approach to the horror content contained within.
The project first came about when the young scriptwriter was contacted by producer Steve Matthews to work on rewriting dialogue for a proposed police drama series. During their meeting, de Ville mentioned that what he really wanted to do was create a horror-based TV show and Matthews suggested an anthology format. Inspired by the suggestion, de Ville set about creating storylines including one that would eventually become the first episode. On the strength of this Matthews quickly commissioned a full script from de Ville. Having decided on the anthology approach the writer drew up a distinctive vision of the style of stories he wanted to tell. “I decided pretty quickly that I didn’t want to do this very traditional form of British horror set in old mansions and misty graveyards. I wanted every story to be set in the modern-day and city-based, not the traditional gothic style that was still lingering in British film-making at the time. ”
The pair took the project to Channel 5 and, as luck would have it, the broadcaster had recently considered making a horror series. After seeing two or three spec scripts they gave the green light for the series to go ahead and de Ville agreed to write the entire series. This meant that de Ville was still writing some of the later episodes whilst the series was still in shooting whilst balancing production meetings with the directors and attempting to do rewrites to meet their needs and suggestions. By the time a second series was in the cards, the writer was understandably feeling burned out and agreed to contribute only four episodes whilst the remaining episodes were handled by other writers. This was all in the future however as the first episode of the premiere season would quickly become the centre of outrage…
With each tale was set around London, or one of the UK’s larger cities, season one launched with “Dead Meat” (17th May 2000) written by Tom de Ville who crafted a tale of the resurrection of the dead and necromancy. He later noted “I wanted to do a very simple, Sam Raimiesque story about a bunch of kids and a zombie in a building. ” The episode’s director, Andrew Morgan, had previously directed one of the highlights of the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who with “The Remembrance of the Daleks”, and amongst the cast was rising star Ashley Walters in an early role. The episode ran into controversy according to the trade paper The Stage when Channel 5 received its most complaints ever with 10,000 viewers jamming the broadcaster’s switchboards after a scene when a frog is put into a blender and liquidised.
A Channel 5 spokesman attempted to defuse the situation by stating “It was only two gherkins and a blood bag and some good editing. We were not prepared for so many people complaining. ” The regulatory body the ITC received only five complaints from viewers which they did not uphold or pursue. The scene, running to 36 seconds, was cut from the first issue of the series on home media but reinstated for its later release on DVD. The series did not receive much in the way of coverage in the mainstream press though The Stage did review this episode. “It is difficult not to like this programme. Its dramatic priorities are shocks, horror and bloody violence. As the first episode of the series showed, if you are going to have an acolyte of Satan raised from the dead to commit several murders all in the space of thirty minutes, then you are going to have to sacrifice a little in the way of plausibility and plot. Some of the Scream-style ironic dialogue was also a little clunky, but apart from these minor quibbles “Urban Gothic” was an imaginative and entertaining exercise in trash TV. ”
The second episode was “Vampirology” (24th May 2000) a faux documentary about Rex, a hundred-year-old vampire who frequents Soho, and provided a fresh and invigorating approach to the subject matter. Ingrid Pitt has a cameo playing herself whilst director Colin Bucksey later decamped to America where he has worked on such stellar rated shows as Fargo and Breaking Bad. Rex was played by Keith-Lee Castle who later played another vampire, The Count, for the children’s fantasy series Young Dracula between 2006 and 2014. The episode is one of the standout instalments of the first season with clever pastiches of the documentary genre with a plethora of references to vampire mythology and cinema. There is also a vicious killing of a girl by Rex which is shocking, messy and uncompromising. The episode was later adapted for the stage and performed in Bristol in 2001 and had the highest viewing figures of the entire series with 7.3 million viewers tuning in.
Third instalment “Old Nick” (31st May 2000) strongly underlined the urban nature of the series with a tale a young boy, Jake, and his mother moving into a new housing estate where Jake befriends a young girl called Sadie. A string of mysterious deaths occur and Sadie tells Jake that the Devil, in the shape of an old man, lives on the estate and was responsible for the deaths. Jake is persuaded to confront Nick, however, and things are not as they appear to be. Another script by Tom de Ville which uses more traditional motifs though the twist ending is pretty predictable.
The next episode, “Lacuna” (7th June 2000), sees two addicts, Spike and Sydney, break into a mental hospital in an attempt to steal drugs. They become trapped when a matron mistakes them for inmates trying to escape and starts to carry out a series of experiments on them. The episode presents some disturbing hallucinogenic imagery which climaxes with the nurse tearing her own face off. The story, again written by Tom de Ville, is possibly a parable about choices between heaven and hell and is the kind of episode which gives Urban Gothic its own unique flavour. The story was later published in the first-ever book released by Telos Publishing, Urban Gothic: Lacuna and Other Trips (2001).
“Deptford Voodoo” (14th June 2000) featured a social worker, Saul Darrow, who becomes involved in a confrontation between a gang of thieves and an avenging voodoo entity named Papa Legba. This ambitious episode comes over as rushed and confusing as a dense narrative is crammed into a short running time as we see three different people become the vessels of voodoo spirits. “Sum of the Parts” (21st June 2000) was a detective story where mysterious deaths in a hospital are all linked by the fact that the victims had recently received donated organs. Terry Molloy, who played Davros in 1980s Doctor Who, appears as a creepy doctor. The episode ups the ante with some explicit for TV gore but is a confusing mess of transplants, cloning and supernatural manifestations.
“The One Where…” (5th July 2000) is the story of a woman who starts to date a TV producer called Lucien. As she introduces him to her friends it becomes clear that he is actually the devil and is intent on manipulating her colleagues for his own ends. Guest actors include a young Robert Webb before he found fame in the comedy series Peep Show. This is another episode where the ideas definitely needed more time to grow and would have benefitted from a longer running time.
Tom de Ville is still on scripting duties for “Cry Wolf” (12th July 2000) and here he attempts to inject new blood into the werewolf genre to mixed results. When the body of policeman is found in an abandoned cinema the police arrest a feral young man. Both a police doctor and an animal behaviourist who are ex-lovers attempt to befriend the boy, but they soon suspect he may not be entirely human. Whilst the doctor becomes more attracted to the feral young man the animal behaviourist returns to the cinema to become infected lycanthropy. Some atmospheric location work in an abandoned London cinema and a well-staged climactic werewolf battle add much value to the instalment.
“Be Movie” (19th July 2000) has five students finding themselves trapped in a real-life slasher flick when they attend school detention. Tom de Ville’s script is a homage to the slasher movie genre incorporating many of the tropes with inventive death sequences including one victim exploding when they try to escape. The story is let down by the ending which is confusing with multiple closing shots that present every character as both the hero and the killer in an attempt a blurring of the lines between reality and film. As was becoming standard for the series rational explanations are overlooked for more style than substance.
“Pineapple Chunks” (26th July 2000) was a story of a working-class family moving to an apparently idyllic suburban area who soon begin to question why the town is so perfect. Their dog also keeps finding strange hunks of meat and the cans of pineapple chunks sold at the local shop are found to have a sinister purpose. Anita Dobson guest-starred in an episode which proved how unpredictable the series was with a story which stages an alien invasion in a supermarket. Both funny and gory.
“Boy’s Club” (2nd August 2000) guest-starred Leslie Grantham as the father of rising gangster Lenny Scratch. Lenny wants to join an exclusive “Boy’s Club” of criminals, but to do so he must kill his own father and Lenny’s subsequent hammer attack on his father is shocking and brutal. One of the better instalments with quality acting including veteran actors Ray Burdis and Nicholas Ball and a climax which is unsettling and lingers in the memory.
Next was one of the weaker episodes of the first season in the form of “Turn On” (9th August 2000). After a phantom pregnancy, Jane is told she can never become pregnant. As she descends into madness she makes the shocking discovery that she may in fact be an android. Another Tom de Ville storyline which veers into science fiction, but with a liberal sprinkling of sex.
The final episode of the first season of thirteen episodes had the slightly meta title of “Thirteen” (16th August 2000) and is set a year after the events of the first episode “Dead Meat”. Guest actors include Sean Maguire and Richard (Rocky Horror Picture Show) O’Brien with Maguire playing a struggling reporter who is chosen to take over from O’Brien as the next Storyteller of London. An intriguing script by de Ville which draws together elements from previous episodes into an imaginative bricolage of themes and ideas to end the first season.
Just over a year later the second season launched with “Sandman” (22nd October 2001), a pastiche of slasher flicks and reality TV. A group of contestants in a game show must keep physically in contact with a sports car with the last person touching the vehicle declared the winner. As the contestants start to suffer sleep deprivation they become targeted by a homicidal maniac known as Sandman. This was the first episode not written by Tom de Ville with the honours instead going to Michael Bassett who crafted a spooky episode, one of the highlights of the entire series, with very gory scenes for TV at the time. Bassett went on to write and direct British horror films Deathwatch (2002) and Wilderness (2006) as well as Silent Hill: Revelation (2012).
The second episode, “Membrane” (29th October 2001), was set in a government research department investigating the human genome which has made a discovery that has killed everyone in the facility. A task force is sent into the laboratory to retrieve surveillance footage and find out what happened. Tom de Ville returns to script duties in an episode which hints at a wider underlying theme for the whole series, but in the end only serves to confuse the viewer further despite being well filmed on a tight budget with gore, goo and mutations.
In “Necromance” (5th November 2001) a young girl called Poppy uses a spellbook to make herself attractive to a boy, Corum, in her school. After she has cast the spell she discovers he is into necrophilia. She kills herself and the spell makes her come back to life as a zombie. However, the course of true love does not run smooth when Poppy discovers that Corum has been dallying with other dead bodies behind her back. Claire Buckfield featured in the cast with Dominic McDonagh scripting one of the more humorous and entertaining tales of the series, but still with lashings of OTT gore. One of the more straight forward episodes and a highlight of the second season.
“Eater” (12th November 2001) featured a cannibalistic serial killer who is arrested and put into a police station cell. He escapes and runs amok in the station with his ability to shapeshift into the appearance of the policemen he has killed. Written by Peter Crowther, who also has a successful career as a horror and fantasy novelist, this was more coherent than other episodes, if a little predictable, with ample gore and body parts to keep horror hounds happy.
Tom de Ville both wrote and directed the next episode “Serotonin Wild” (19th November 2001). Three students become guinea pigs for a series of tests known as The Heinzman Test where they are forced to commit crimes to protect those that they love. Anthony (C3PO) Daniels and Terence (The Demon Headmaster) Hardiman are guest stars. A great cast though the story is over-complex and makes little sense whilst de Ville makes a good stab at directing.
The episode “Ritual Slaughter” (26th November 2001) was next and centred on a woman (Sarah Smart) with obsessive-compulsive disorder who believes her compulsive rituals prevent her from harming others. Her new therapist persuades her that the rituals are meaningless and to his utter horror he soon realises that the woman was actually right. Frank Tallis wrote a simple, but effective story which benefited from a fine performance by Smart. The ending, involving a plane crash, saw the episode being delayed from its original transmission slot due to the terrible events of 9/11.
For “The End” (25th December 2001) the series goes meta again as the episode is interrupted soon after starting by a live feed from two policemen and a hacker who are barricaded inside a house in the middle of a violent riot. They appeal for help, but is it all just an elaborate hoax? Andrew Cull scripts an episode that pays homage to the ‘spoof’ genre inhabited by such material as Ghostwatch and Orson Wells’ legendary radio version of War of the Worlds. An impressive and ambitious piece of television, which sadly got lost in the generally chaotic and hectic tone of other episodes of Urban Gothic, this is worth seeking out for a viewing.
The series drew to a close with a two-part storyline. “Dollhouse Burns: Part 1” (28th December 2001) has Kali (Ania Sowinski), one of the young people from the episode “Serotonin Wild”, discovered in a freezer barely alive and is questioned by government officials about who was behind the events of the experiment in that episode. Kali starts to discover a secret society and their plans for mankind. Terence Hardiman also returns to menace participants as the creepy character Severin. Other characters from previous stories also return and references are made to the events of the episode “Membrane”. A confusing mess for the casual viewer, and also a difficult task for the regular viewer as well, this was a brave but ill-judged attempt to bring uniformity to the variable nature of an anthology series.
“Dollhouse Burns: Part 2” (28th December 2001) continues the storyline with Kali teamed up with a returning Jude Redfield and Milton, a zombie character from the episode “Dead Meat”, as they try to stop the evil plans of a secret society known as The Institute. Hardiman gives it full power in a fantastically menacing performance in a story that builds to an apparent epic climax but in the end, just fizzles out in a damp squib of obscurity making a disappointing end to an interesting take on the horror anthology. If nothing else the second season of the series showed a production team that was much more confident in developing off the wall ideas and ambitious about the scope of stories they could cover with such a tight budget. File under the heading of interesting failure.