Malice and Manipulation: The Forgotten Terrors of The Frighteners

the frighteners

Malice & Manipulation

The Forgotten Terrors of The Frighteners

A curiously long-neglected anthology series, The Frighteners (1972-73) utilised cultural concerns of the period in telling its pitch-black horror tales. Andrew Screen takes a closer look at the series' 13-episode run...

Having been almost forgotten since originally broadcast, The Frighteners was a series of brisk offbeat tales of psychological horror that was given a new lease of life due to a DVD release by Network in 2017. Assembled by script editor John Burke and producer Paul Knight, the series had a linking theme of seemingly ordinary people threatened by out-of-the-ordinary situations spiralling beyond their control. The programme avoided supernatural horror and instead depicted the potential of man to harm and their fellow human with a truly varied collection of distinctive tales. I can think of no other horror anthology series which offers such a variety of enjoyable and surprising stories, some of them carved from the blackest pitch.

The series had a unique look and feel thanks to being shot on film and using extensive location work in and around London, a form of production later fully exploited by Euston Films in their series such as The Sweeney. Unfortunately, The Frighteners suffered from difficulties with scheduling which resulted in patchy showings. The adult nature of the stories limited it to a late-night slot meaning several episodes were screened after midnight and it was only partially networked on the ITV channel. Critic Frank Hatherley commented on the issue in the trade paper The Stage in his review of the episode ‘The Treat‘: “London Weekend’s series of 30-minute films under the general heading The Frighteners seems to have the programme planners, if not actually frightened, at least perplexed. Careful scrutiny of the TV Times is required to spot each new screening.” 

It’s perhaps this factor that has contributed to the series not developing the same kind of cache or following enjoyed by other similar series.

the frighteners

Each episode opened with a title sequence that was as concise and punchy as the stories that followed. A shocked looking male face travelling away from the viewer down an animated tunnel to a soundtrack of soaring one-note harmonics. There is a touch of Doctor Who to the sequence, reinforced by the man’s face looking not unlike Ian Marter who played the companion Harry in the debut season of Tom Baker’s era, but also a nod to Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream. The abrupt nature of the titles acts as a bridge to the collection of compelling dramas that played out each week over the late summer and early autumn of 1972. 

Premiere instalment ‘The Minder’ (7th July 1972) begins like a lost episode of a Euston Films cops and robbers TV series as a jailed villain is sprung free during a hospital appointment. The cast is consists of a raft of familiar screen heavies and tough guys; Tom Bell with massive 70s sideburns, a really young Warren Clarke, Brian (Kes) Glover, and a sweaty, sweary Kenneth J. Warren. The action is competently handled by director James Goddard who would later direct the Euston Films crime drama series Out which also starred Tom Bell in a very similar role to the conflicted gangster he plays here. As a first episode, ‘The Minder‘ does not attempt to establish a template but does help illustrate the variety of approaches and styles the series would deliver. The story itself is as much psychological horror as it is a precursor to gritty crime stories as Gangsters, Get Carter or The Sweeney and is well photographed entirely on location in urban London lending weight and sheen to the show.

The Night of the Stag‘ (14th July 1972) was the debut TV play of writer Andrea Newman and directed by John Reardon with a cast that included Jennie Linden, Robin Ellis and Prentis Hancock who was later a regular in Space 1999. Newman, whose later series Bouquet of Barbed Wire exploited sexual morals, here constructs a tale of intense love souring. Linden, who should have been more widely used in her short career, is a jilted girlfriend who appears at her ex’s stag night with horrific results whilst Prentis Hancock sports this episode’s most impressive massive sideburns. 

the frighteners

John Reardon also directed the following tale, ‘Old Comrades‘ (21st July 1972,) from a script by Robert Holles. This was later published as a stage play as it is basically a theatrical piece with just three actors confined in one location. John Thaw trades on his past success in Redcap playing an ex-soldier alongside George Innes as a fellow ex-serviceman. It’s a twisty tale with Innes and Thaw intimidating and torturing their ex-commanding officer played by Robert Urquhart and the gruelling sequences of cat-and-mouse between the three characters make this an early standout episode.

Perhaps the most cerebral and unique episode of the series was ‘The Manipulators‘ (28th July 1972) directed and written by Mike Hodges. Bryan Marshall and Stanley Lebor featured in a tale of conditioning and brainwashing which Hodges would also explore in his film The Terminal Man (1973). The director had just enjoyed success with his first feature film, Get Carter (1971), which helped to inspire the script for ‘The Manipulators’. Hodges had attended a screening of his film and witnessed the effect the movie had on the cinema-going audience and the power events onscreen had over the emotions of those watching.

Marshall and Lebor work for an unnamed secret organisation, staking out and monitoring a neighbouring flat and the young couple living there. The offbeat and grim story that unfolds is as much an experiment in audience manipulation as it is a diatribe of such scientific endeavours. The script quotes the experiments of Pavlov and his dogs and how it applies to conditioning techniques in a sequence of a lecture. Intercut with this are two men monitoring the couple and footage of a hall full of people learning to touch type to barked repetitive orders of which keys to hit ‘A…now! B…now! C…now!’ Hodges builds a rhythm with this technique which helps ratchet up the tension throughout the production. Nothing is explained, or obvious, making the viewer work to make sense of the intercutting between the three sequences as we build towards the twisted climax of the story. Stunning television though Hodges felt that the episode was, “a very strange, cold, piece. ”

the frighteners

The Disappearing Man‘ (4th August 1972) provided a rare leading role for the always miserable-looking character actor Victor Maddern as Harry in an episode that borders on the metaphorical. Harry is a man who believes he may just be disappearing from the world as he is ignored by his wife, boss and friends. This was the first of three episodes that were directed by Henri Safran and here he makes impressive use of London locations including the Underground in the deeply disturbing ending as Harry experiences the ultimate form of urban alienation, he literally fading away to nothing.

Safran also directed the episode ‘Firing Squad‘ (11th August 1972) which utilised Stamford Bridge stadium, home of Chelsea Football Club, as the main location for a story of mercenaries out to settle a dispute. The drama plays out like 1970s exploitation film with Michael Craig upping the 70s face hair ante with a Groucho Marx moustache up against Edward (Rentaghost) Brayshaw as an opposing mercenary. The strong use of locations roots the tale in the everyday juxtaposed with scenes underpinned by funky percussion themes that would become commonplace in 70s thriller film and TV. The episode is another example of the diversity shown by the series with the tone more action thriller than psychological horror helping to mark out The Frighteners as one of the more creative anthology series of the era.

Series script editor John Burke contributed ‘Miss Mouse‘ (25th August 1971) under returning director John Reardon and starring John Normington and Heather Canning. This was the first of two episodes made in black-and-white due to a technicians’ strike and was set in a trendy London flat with a bickering couple returning home from a night out. The argument escalates and takes a shocking turn barely five minutes into the episode tilting it from urban drama to a descent into a nightmare scenario for Normington’s character. Perhaps due to the black-and-white photography, the episode is imbued with the feeling of an Eastern European art-house cinema piece rather than 70s TV drama. 

the frighteners

The Treat‘ (1st September 1972) saw the series return to being filmed in colour for an episode shot on location away from previous urban settings and in the countryside. Ian Holm, receiving top billing, was Gordon Breen, a male nurse supporting three elderly gentlemen on a trip to the country; lugubrious John Barrett as Henry, heavy-browed Liam Redmond playing Cyril and a surprisingly sprightly Leslie French as Leslie. The car journey and arrival at their destination is filled glowering looks, dialogue-heavy with alternative meaning and a distinct air of menace as if the veterans have some unspoken secret together. A game of hide-and-seek soon becomes a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a blunt, chilling finale. The episode was reviewed by Frank Hatherley for The Stage who was lukewarm about the episode but found he found favour in the technical aspects: “Mike Humphreys must have performed near-Olympian acrobatics with his camera to capture the many angles required for the trapped-in-the-bushes finale. John Jarvis was responsible for some energetic cutting.”

For a series full of twisted tales the most truly misshapen and crooked has to be ‘Bed and Breakfast‘ (8th September 1971). Ian Hendry and Wendy Gifford are two strangers who turn up at a private house in the remote countryside demanding bed and breakfast. What starts as a black comedy of cultural and social clashing quickly assumes a more macabre tone with an unexpected turn of events illustrating man’s potential for vengeance in whichever form possible. Ian Hendry is superb as one of the gatecrashing couple seeking board (and revenge) in one of my personal favourites in a crowded field of thrilling episodes. 

Television veterans Cyril Coke and Wilfred Greatorex supplied ‘You Remind Me of Someone‘ (23rd September 1972). Coke directed Greatorex’s stripped-down script featuring Barry Jackson as a long-distance lorry driver and Jack Hedley as a man who hijacks the driver’s lorry and demands Jackson keeps on driving. Much of the drama takes place in the cab of the lorry as Jackson slowly realises his captor is a serial killer in gestation. A strange, low-key episode that offered a welcome variation in pace and tone.

the frighteners

Possibly the best-known episode of the series was ‘The Classroom‘ (13th May 1973) possibly thanks to a copy posted Youtube and still available via the channel. William Trevor’s script produced a menacing performance from Clive Swift as a grown-up ex-pupil of a retiring schoolteacher against whom he has nurtured a grudge for years. Visiting her on her last day at work in the old classroom he was taught in, his long-gestating resentment quickly bubbles to surface and he intimidates the elderly teacher. The teacher, however, is about to turn the tables. 

The episode provides a rare central role for Swift, revealing a more sardonic and menacing side to an actor usually seen in comedic or amiable roles. Writer Billy Smart perfectly summarised the plot in the viewing notes booklet that accompanied the DVD release of the series: “The Classroom understands horror as something carried internally for years, frightening for others when it’s finally acted out.”

The writer of ‘Glad to Be of Help’ (20th May 1973) was Maurice Edelman who drew upon his experiences as the Member of Parliament for Coventry for the story of Tory MP Tony Wardle (John Standing) who is faced with a frustrated constituent, Bob – played by the burly Joe Lynch – during a local MP’s surgery. This is basically another two-hander which sees a stranger intrude upon the safe space of another individual, a theme running throughout the series. Many voters have at some point probably felt like Bob and would welcome the chance of literally getting their hands their local MP. Watching the episode will be cathartic to those who have as Bob attempts to throttle Tony after being driven over the edge by the death of his son while in care. In this sense, the episode can be read as the closest the series comes to comedy albeit an extremely dry, sardonic one. 

the frighteners

The final drama was ‘Have A Nice Time At The Zoo, Darling’ (3rd June 1973), another episode of The Frighteners impacted by a technicians’ strike and so also produced in black-and-white. This actually imbues the instalment with a far creepier tone than it would have in colour. Before playing the family-friendly (albeit oddly unsettling) figure of The Crowmaster in Worzel Gummidge actor Geoffrey Bayldon had a period of taking on darker characters in British horror films including this strange, provocative drama filmed on location at Chessington Zoo. The evocative opening shot of the sound of footsteps as the camera pans past a graveyard and church at night utilises the black-and-white photography to good effect demonstrating why this is one of the better-recalled episodes by those who viewed it on first broadcast. Bayldon portrays a man seemingly stalking a young girl, but there is more to this relationship than at first meets the eye.

The Frighteners has definitely not enjoyed the attention it deserved and is a neglected, underappreciated series which dealt with the cultural concerns and fears of the period in which it was made. Despite this, it still retains the power to shock modern viewers with a kaleidoscope of macabre stories, united in their depiction of man’s inhumanity to man with storylines and subject matter that would probably make modern-day TV executives weak at the knees. Bleak, desolate and nasty it’s well worth tracking down – but be warned, it can still be uneasy viewing.


Sources:

[1] The Treat review by Frank Hartherley, The Stage and Television Today, 7th September 1972, page 13

[1] No one croaks bastard quite like Kenneth

[1] As quoted in The Frighteners Viewing Notes by Billy Smart, Page 6, Network DVD release 2017

[1] The Treat review by Frank Hatherley, The Stage and Television Today, 7th September 1972, page 13

[1] The Frighteners Viewing Notes by Billy Smart, page 7, Network DVD release 2017

 

Purchase The Frighteners by clicking the image below…

the frighteners

Andrew Screen

Andrew Screen

Writer on things film & TV by night, author of The Book of Beasts, an official guide to the Nigel Kneale series, (coming soon). SEN practitioner by day.

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