'Wait 'til he's hungry'
Nigel Kneale's Beasts
Andrew Screen, author of the forthcoming The Book of Beasts, explores a ‘touchstone of folk horror and hauntology’, the seminal 1976 series Beasts by Nigel Kneale…
Mention the summer of 1976 to those who were around and they may go all misty-eyed as they nostalgically recall the record-breaking heatwave that evaporated water supplies, cracked paving flags and melted roads.
They might even recall the swarms of seven-spotted ladybirds that ran riot around the country. It was THE event of the year. It was a landmark in their life.
Not for me. That occurred after the weather had broken, during October and November when I was allowed to stay up late and watch the ITV series Nigel Kneale’s Beasts (1976). I had pestered my mum for days beforehand, prompted by that week’s TV Times listing magazine giving the programme a hefty push with an interview feature with the series writer Nigel Kneale, called The Great Utility Monster, outlining the new programme.
I first became associated with the work of Nigel Kneale when I was allowed to stay up late on Christmas Day 1972 and watch The Stone Tape (Peter Sasdy). I had just turned five years old a few months earlier and must have either been incredibly well-behaved or extremely quiet that night – my mum often fell asleep in front of the telly. So the memory is a little hazy, more impressionistic than solid. I recalled images of Jane Asher chased by a blob of light and someone falling down some stairs. The tone and feel of the production imprinted itself on me. I did remember the name of the man who wrote it, however, and scoured the TV listings, hoping to find something else he had written. I had to wait for exactly one year before I got my next Nigel Kneale fix in the form of the Hammer film version of Quatermass and the Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967) shown on Christmas Day 1973. From then on, I was a Kneale nut, borrowing books from the library to learn more about him.
So it was no wonder I was in full pester mode towards my mum on a Friday night in October 1976…
Nigel Kneale’s Beasts sprang from an episode of an earlier anthology series, Against the Crowd (1975), produced by Nicholas Palmer for ATV. The series, as defined by ATV publicity, featured people, ‘who by circumstances or conviction find themselves opposed by all around them,’ and featured scripts from Fay Weldon, Howard Schuman, Roger Marshall and Palmer himself. The dramas featured various stories about aspects of modern society, including racism and children with disabilities. Kneale’s contribution, ‘Murrain‘, was the only one with a supernatural theme.
Shot entirely on location in a remote Derbyshire village, ‘Murrain‘ was a tale of rural witchcraft with a young vet stumbling upon the persecution of an elderly woman, Mrs Clemson, by a group of local men. David Simeon, more known for his comedy roles, played the vet, Crich, with a sensitivity and conviction he should have been wider known for. He held his corner well against the acting heavyweights of Una Brandon Jones as Mrs Clemson and Bernard Lee as the leader of the witch hunt. The slow-burning plot allowed Kneale to explore the human condition from a myriad of perspectives as well as provide an ending that could delight or infuriate due to its inconclusiveness.
Kneale, recently having fallen out with the BBC, enjoyed the experience and so, along with Palmer floated the idea of a pure horror anthology to ATV. The idea would be to make a series of six one-hour dramas in which an animal of one kind or another would provide the story’s theme. ATV, with an eye on marking its 21st anniversary as an ITV franchise, quickly agreed and gave the go-ahead for the series to enter production. The completed series, Beasts by Nigel Kneale, was announced as part of ATV’s autumn season along with new family entertainment series The Muppet Show (Peter Harris, Philip Casson, 1976-81) and a live-action space adventure from Gerry Anderson, Space 1999 (1975-77). Sadly, despite the fanfare, Beasts suffered from not having a networked transmission resulting in some areas showing the episodes in a different order and on different evenings. To avoid confusion this article will look at the series in the order that it was made.
The first episode before the cameras was ‘During Barty’s Party‘, overseen by the veteran theatre and TV director Don Taylor. He had established himself with a string of one-off plays at the BBC including A Suitable Case for Treatment (21st October 1962) which was later adapted into the film Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment (Karel Reisz, 1966) starring David Warner. More recently he had written and directed the powerful horror play ‘The Exorcism‘ for the BBC horror anthology series Dead of Night (1972). Kneale’s script featured a middle-class couple coming under siege from a swarm of relentless rats in their rural home and would require capable actors for the demanding roles. With only two actors visible on the screen, Taylor realised he needed a pair of veteran actors who could handle the pressure of being the main focus of the drama for the majority of the running time. He chose Anthony Bate and Elisabeth Sellars.
It was a case of perfect casting. Sellars and Bate gave what are perhaps the most memorable and enduring performances of their lives which even prompted the usually curmudgeonly Nigel Kneale to heap praise on them: ‘Elizabeth Sellars, as the wife, gave the most terrifying performance I had ever seen. The moment when she realises what is going to happen, that they’re going to be devoured by a swarm of rats, she is so genuine in her fear – every time I see that now, looking at a tape, it curls me up. And I wrote it. The actor, also very good, was Anthony Bate.’(1) Kneale, who had envisioned a story similar to the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds (1963) delivered, together with Don Taylor, what is still one of the tensest episodes of television horror ever made achieved simply with sound effects and without a single rampaging rodent on show.
After the high of ‘During Barty’s Party‘ the series offered the most marmite of episodes in the form ‘Buddyboy‘, a ghost story featuring a phantom cetacean. There had been stories with ghostly animals before, but a dolphin haunting has to be unique. Apart from the left-field ghost in the episode, something just doesn’t quite gel with the story set in the opposing worlds of adult entertainment and performing dolphins. The cast included an early role for Martin Shaw as Dave, an utter shit of a man who can only relate to the world in purely transactional terms. This includes his relationship with the strange girl Lucy (Pamela Moiseiwitch) who had cared for the eponymous dead dolphin.
Also, Wolfe Morris is good value as the businessman Hubbard, who desperately wants to sell his dolphinarium to Dave to escape the ghostly presence of Buddyboy. His increasingly twitchy, sweaty and boggle-eyed performance goes to considerable lengths to convey his physical and mental breakdown before the curse is passed to the speculative porn baron Dave. Having seen this episode several times in preparation for my book on the series I can now appreciate some of the subtleties of the story into which Kneale works some nods to M.R. James. I can also appreciate that the bricolage of themes and influences makes this inaccessible for many – coupled with the fact that the episode does not feature one sympathetic character making this the outlier of the series.
Kneale satirised Hammer horror films in the episode ‘The Dummy‘, having worked with the company several times previously. Bernard Horsfall gives an impressive performance as an actor known for his role inside a rubber monster suit who suffers a breakdown on set. He becomes the monster and goes on the rampage attacking the cast and crew and trashing the set. The episode boasts the largest cast of all the series with many familiar faces and names enjoying the on-screen chaos. After killing a supporting actor and savagely clawing a policeman’s face, Horsfall graphically throttles to death his co-star who has become the new lover of his estranged wife. Kneale particularly liked the production, often citing it as one of his favourite episodes in interviews and it still manages to pack a punch with the modern viewer. It was certainly more entertaining and horrifying than anything Hammer was releasing at this point.
‘Special Offer‘ features the most special effects of the series as Pauline Quirke unleashes latent psychic powers in a local supermarket. The complex (for its time) special effects set-up needed an extra day in the studio to achieve but the effort was worth it. Contemporary reviews could not see beyond the technical efforts on display and failed to pick up on the tremendous performance from Quirke as Noreen the teenager with the ‘power’. Often lazily dismissed as simply ‘Carrie in a supermarket’ the episode had been in development before Stephen King’s novel and the subsequent film adaptation. Kneale had originally pitched the storyline as an episode of the earlier ITV anthology show, Orson Wells’ Great Mysteries (1973-74), and it was announced to be included in the first season. However, this never materialised and Kneale was able to develop his idea further for inclusion in Beasts.
‘What Big Eyes‘ is another odd fish of an episode and saw Kneale tackle the werewolf in a typically atypical way by going back to the root meaning of the term lycanthropy. The origin of the word can be traced back to ancient Greece and did not have any association with mythology at the time. It was, in fact, a term for a neurological or psychological condition where sufferers believed that they could change into the form of an animal. Legendary scenery chewer Patrick Magee, with a much more subdued performance than normal, played a pet shop owner whose experiments on timberwolves come to the attention of RSPCA officer Michael Kitchen.
Madge Ryan provides sterling support as Magee’s suppressed daughter whose emotions boil over in the puzzlingly ambiguous, but strangely emotional ending. The episode was promoted in the listings magazine TV Times which noted ‘Nigel Kneale suggests that the foggy borderline between wolves and people, the confusion arising therefrom, could be because in poor, primitive and over-crowded societies families put their surplus or retarded children out to die in forests or mountains. The hardy ones who managed to survive grew up wild and walking on all fours, so when they were found they were called wolf children. This gave rise to reflections like: ‘If wolves can bring up a human child perhaps they’re closer to us than we thought.’ As Kneale observes, lycanthropy, like politics is full of silliness.'(2)
The series ended with another stone-cold classic in the shape of ‘Baby‘. Jane Wymark, the daughter of the late actor Patrick Wymark of The Blood on Satan’s Claw (Piers Haggard, 1971) fame, played the wife of a vet portrayed by Simon McCorkindale, who are renovating their cottage after moving to the countryside. While knocking down a wall they discover an ancient earthenware flask in a cavity that contains a malformed creature dried to a husk. This, of course, piques the interest of the vet. To say much more will spoil the immense feeling of lingering dread this episode musters. Some may find the ending of the episode dated primitive, or even laughable if they are unaccustomed to watching television dramas of the period. If you can forgive the technical limitations of the time and commit yourself to the story then you will discover one of the scariest pieces of television drama ever produced.
For the past few years, I have been researching and writing about the series for my forthcoming publication The Book of Beasts which will be an in-depth analysis of the series and the themes contained within it. The book, which has the blessing of Kneale’s estate, will contain chapters on the making of each episode and Kneale’s play ‘Murrain‘ as well as details of the storylines for three unmade episodes. This is all thanks to access to Kneale’s file and papers about the series.
If you have never seen Nigel Kneale’s Beasts I urge you to rectify this as soon as you can. The series is a touchstone of folk horror and hauntology and has inspired many modern creators of horror entertainment.
 Nigel Kneale quoted in “The Quatermass Addendum Part 3” by Bill Warren, Starlog 141, April 1989, page 51
 “Beware of the President – He Might Bite” by Alix Coleman, The TV Times, 6th November 1976, page 10