DREAD, DESOLATION AND URBAN ISOLATION:
SHADOWS OF FEAR (1970–1973)
Andrew Screen tackles Thames Television's early 70s anthology, Shadows of Fear, which eschewed the supernatural for more psychological horrors...
There is tumbling of strings and piano as an image emerges from the black. We are in a cityscape with rows upon rows of crowded streets rushing by. Melting, ringing piano chords start to form a woozy tune as the view changes to buildings on a street and we pass a shop front. Faces are reflected in the shop windows screaming out to us for help but we hurry past. We come to a high rise block and the image rushes forward to the building. It quickly fades to two of the many block windows and we can see what appears to be a solitary figure. Perhaps they are bald with their back to us as we can distinguish no facial features, just a smooth oval.
As hazy piano stumbles over another chord the image dissolves again leaving the solitary figure in front of a tree and the gable end of a street. The journey starts again and we pan past another tree, silhouetted underneath are figures waving or signalling to us. The area seems less urban and we pass a lone house and more trees before a closer view of a brick wall and window slides into view. Voices, possibly children playing, tumble alongside the piano on the soundscape. There is a person in the window and they look frightened, but we do not stop until we see the next window. A small child is smiling at what appears to be an anatomical dummy, the ribs exposed under peeled back skin. We come to a halt and the dummy turns to look directly at us. There is an abrupt cut to a pale blue front door and words appear: Shadows of Fear. The piano melts away repeating a single sharp note. The door opens and we are swallowed by the darkness within…
This isn’t a dream or nightmare, but the animated title sequence to the Thames anthology series Shadows of Fear which offered psychological scares and suspense over eleven episodes between 1970 and 1973. The title sequence evocatively touched upon the interior nature of the stories, evoking a sense of urban isolation and desolation, and together with Roger Webb’s unsettling title music, they formed one of the more memorable credit sequences of the era. It set the tone of what was to follow perfectly. The series began with a pilot episode in 1970 with a full season of nine one hour episodes following in 1971. There was then a hiatus of two years before another single episode screened in 1973.
Roger Marshall, who had created the drama series Public Eye (ABC/Thames, 1965-75), wrote the pilot, ‘Did You Lock Up?‘ (17th June 1970), starring Michael Craig and Gewn Watford as Peter Astle and his wife Moira celebrating an anniversary with a night away from home. Meanwhile, Mark MacManus, appearing in a role the polar opposite of his signature Taggart (1983-), leads a band of thugs that ransacks the Astle’s home. The robbery pressures the couple’s relationship, causing arguments, as Peter suspects the burglars acted on inside information. Ray Smith appears in one of his endless roles as a copper, Sergeant Newman, and advises that at some point the perpetrators will return. Peter decides to fit security shutters that completely block off his study room. When his wife arranges for them to go away he engineers an excuse to stay at home. MacManus and sidekick break in again and are caged in the study. What will he do with them?
A compelling storyline with a subtlety grim ending the pilot set the tone for the following series but was absolutely panned by the critic in The Stage: ‘Strangely it is Roger Marshall, a writer who has proved again and again his ability to create character, who must take the blame for our disappointment. Striving to convert Grand Guignol into psychological drama he fell between the two stools and achieved neither aim. His characters were far too small for the needs of melodrama, whereas the story, if accepted on the level of true drama, required a far more credible motivation than it was given’ (‘Simple Tale But Was So Contrived’ by Patrick Campbell, The Stage and Television Today, 25th June 1970, page 11). Whatever the critics thought the episode was a hit with 5.9 million homes tuning in, making it the number one viewed programme of the week for ITV (‘TVR Top 20’, The Stage and Television Today, 2nd July 1970, page 14). A full series, with the somewhat nebulous connecting theme of characters having someone or something to fear in each story, was duly greenlit.
The full series launched on Tuesday nights at 9pm with ‘Sugar and Spice‘ (12th January 1971), a macabre exercise written and produced by John Kershaw, and directed by Patrick Dromgoole. A chain-smoking Sheila Hancock starred as Anne Brand, the anxious mother of a missing boy who has run away from home several times before. Her marriage to Victor (Ronald Hines) is on the rocks and he is having an affair that is collapsing. Dromgoole uses sound to build tension in the opening sequence until the appearance of the thirteen-year-old daughter, Judy, a troubled and insular teenager who is hiding a secret. This could be the set up to a standard drama if it were not for the creeping mystery of the missing boy, the claustrophobic confines of a working-class family home and the oppressive atmosphere perpetuated by the sound of constant rain against the windows and a dripping tap in the kitchen. Victor returns home drunk and the couple argues. Then things take a turn for the worst when Anne takes a fatal and shocking tumble down the stairs. The daughter takes control and Suzanne Togni is excellent as the manipulative Judy in a macabre psychodrama.
The Stage critic John Lawrence really didn’t like the episode: ‘The production and performances, labouring under the handicap of a script that gave little indication of character, and few dramatic points on which the tension could be built, were lacklustre. Sheila Hancock did her best to stimulate the audience’s heartbeat rate but there was really no material for her to use, and she merely came over as unduly fussy. Ronald Hines, imaginatively cast as the father, both as character and performer, gave the impression that he would rather be somewhere else’ (‘Artificial Tension, Improbable Story’ by John Lawrence, The Stage and Television Today, 21st January 1971. Page 13). The TV Times supported the transmission of the episode with a small article in their TV Talk column which focussed on John Kershaw. ‘You are looking for a series of suspense plays with the Hitchcock touch. You want to concentrate on the way fear develops from ordinary situations with ordinary characters. So who better to set the terror scene than the man who produces half the Shadows of Fear series – John Kershaw? He not only produces the first play in the series to be seen on Friday, but he also wrote it. Now, he has given up his job as a highly-paid producer for the more uncertain life of a writer. ‘To write about ordinary people,’ he says, ‘I have to meet ordinary people. And that’s something I will not do in the rarefied atmosphere of a TV studio.’ (TV Times dated 9th January 1971, page 9). Kershaw would go on to a steady career as a script editor and writer with later credits on Bergerac (BBC, 1981-91) and The Bill (ITV, 1983-2010).
Richard Harris wrote, ‘At Occupier’s Risk‘ (19th January 1971) starring Anthony Bate alongside Annette Crosby and Gemma Jones. Bate and Crosby play Mr and Mrs Darbon owners of a quiet hotel in the country where Judith (Jones) arrives needing a room for the night. The Darbons are a strange couple who have a secret that allows Bate to display menacing qualities in his performance. There is an odd use of CSO (Colour Separation Overlay) when a character is superimposed onto external footage of the hotel. Evidently, the consequence of a budgetary restriction helps to add an odd edge to the proceedings, and though the episode twist is easy to work out, it is worth watching simply due to the performances of Bate and Crosby. The TV Times supported the episode with a rather strange feature about the dangers of hitchhiking. The listing for the episode promised that it was ‘not so much a case of wondering what will happen next, but hoping that it doesn’t happen.’
‘The Death Watcher‘ (26th January 1971) edges the series into the supernatural and stars acting legend John Neville in a script by Jacques Gillies. Doctor Pickering (Neville) is investigating unexplained phenomena in his countryside manor house and invites a research scientist (Judy Parfitt) to take part in an experiment in contacting the dead. Parfitt does not agree with his theories and rejects the possibility of working with him and retires for the night. The next morning she finds she is held prisoner by Pickering and a man called Dawson played by the eternally sullen faced character actor Victor Maddern. Neville, a suave and calculating figure who only shows doubt in his plans when he is alone, intends to prove life exists after death and maybe the first scientist ever to contemplate cold-blooded murder to achieve this aim. Pickering theorises that spirits and ghosts have all suffered death by violent means and deduces that violent death is a trigger to creating a haunting. Parfitt is to be the unwilling guinea pig… One of the best episodes of the series due in part to a magnificent performance by Neville and a thrilling, horrific ending. A superb story told well.
The TV Times helped promote the episode with another of its tangential articles, this one titled ‘Partners with Whom Death Cannot Part‘. The editorial team picked up on the theme of life after death and so interviewed the medium Mrs Norah Blackwood who held regular sessions communicating with the dead. The TV Talk column ran a small piece that had comments from actor Victor Maddern and his spooky experiences. ‘Maddern cannot forget the time he had to spend a few nights in the dressing room (of Bushey studios), only a few feet from the spot where the ghost of Lulu von Herkomer, the wife of the Baron of that family – he built Bushey studios – is said to walk. Maddern passed two nights in uncanny silence that played on his nerves. On the third night, his imagination got the better of him and he fled to the car park to sleep in his car. ‘I’d just settled down,’ he says, ‘when there was the most horrible shriek I have ever heard. Definitely not human.” The listing for the episode noted that ‘perhaps ghosts need heat to energise themselves – and draw the heat from living beings (why else do you shiver when you see one?)’
Roger Marshall returned to the programme to supply, ‘Repent at Leisure‘ (2nd February 1971), which featured Elizabeth Sellars who played Isabel, an attractive and glamorous older lady, who marries Harry (George Sewell) after meeting him on a cruise ship where he was working as a steward. She begins to experience doubts about Harry’s motivations and soon suspects him of trying to kill her for her inheritance. This was a rather inconclusive episode which would have been more in line with the offerings of Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-74) or Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84) though it performed well in the ratings by being placed ninth in the top twenty viewed programmes of the week with 7.65 million homes watching (JICTAR Ratings week ending February 7th, The Stage and Television Today, 8th February 1971, page 14). The TV Times promoted the episode by featuring a two-page interview with Sellars discussing her career and personal life, but not her appearance in the episode. There was also a small article on Alethea Charlton who talked about never being publically recognised and how she was only now getting fuller, more glamorous roles. Again the episode was not mentioned.
Before playing the avuncular Arthur in Minder (ITV, 1979-94), George Cole went through a purple patch of playing off-kilter and menacing characters such as in ‘Return of Favours’ (9th February 1971) directed by Kim Mills and written by Jeremy Paul. Jennie Linden and Robin Ellis play lovers who borrow their friends flat for afternoon liaisons and during one meeting they are interrupted by a strange man with a bandaged hand (Cole) who claims to be the real owner of the flat. Linden suspects Cole has killed his wife and leaves, but Ellis discovers the macabre truth about the intruder when he returns to the flat. The TV Times promoted the episode with a three-page interview with Jennie Linden titled ‘The Angel with Central Heating’ another piece of fluff that solely concentrated on her personal life with no mention of her role in the play.
Kim Mills directed the sour-tasting sociological chiller ‘The Lesser of Two‘ (16th February 1971) which sees a neighbourhood enact revenge on a man who has just returned home after being jailed for the murder of a child. The entire drama never leaves the confines of a suburban home making for a claustrophobic story. TV Times support came in the form of an interview with playwright Jimmy O’Connor, who had served time in prison, on how individuals who have committed crimes against children are treated in prison. Again nothing about the play was mentioned in the article.
A true gem of the series was ‘White Walls and Olive Green Carpets‘ (23rd February 1971) written by Hugh Leonard and directed by James Gatward. After a short and simple opening shot that is simply the best in the entire series, guaranteed to catch you off-guard, viewers are presented with an extremely well-directed episode. Gatward employs a variety of cinematic styling including focus pulls, shooting reflections on a rain-spattered window and point of view shots. The episode also has strength in the form of the actor Ian Bannen whose naturalistic technique, coupled with a mellifluous voice and a slight Scotch brogue, made him magnetic in whatever role he played. Bannen and Natasha Perry are Robert and Lena, a couple vacationing in a rural retreat. She is highly strung and suspicious of Robert’s reasons for bringing her to such an isolated location. It is revealed that they are having an affair, but Robert’s real wife has died, possibly committing suicide after she discovered Robert and Lena’s relationship. However, Lena still feels that something is not quite right. Bannen excels with his ability to smoothly move from charming to menacing in one of the best performances seen in the series. The Stage was very negative about the episode ‘It started very promisingly indeed, aided by an opening scene that hinted at all sorts of strange things.
‘Unfortunately, the opening proved to be the best thing in the play, which became progressively less interesting… Large passages of dialogue consisted merely of the two characters telling each other things they already knew – for our benefit presumable – and this may well account in part for the weak production. Ian Bannen, struggling to find the logic of his part, resorted to presenting him as a mumbling depressive who rarely sparked off any life or interest. The direction by James Gatward also seemed confused, lacking rhythm or pace’ (‘Couldn’t Sustain A Promising Start by John Lawrence’, The Stage and Television Today, 4th March 1971, page 11). The TV Times didn’t feature an article for this episode, but granted a box out on the listings page together which noted, ‘Fear can come in many shapes: it can appear in the darkness in the shape of skull or it can be even more terrifying when it is met in your favourite surroundings – your ideal room, say, with white walls and olive green carpets…’
Kim Mils returned to direct ‘Sour Grapes‘ (2nd March 1971), another Roger Marshall story, set during a holiday in Spain. The episode opens with Daniel Massey booming his lines out loud and strutting around with hands on hips as the character Mike. He is on holiday with his wife Louise (Isabel Dean) at a Spanish villa…however the villa is housing another visitor in the shape of Ray Smith. He plays a chain-smoking, German-speaking villain who, when he isn’t killing chickens with his bare hands, is threatening the couple with a gun. He also finds time to sexually intimidate Louise whilst Mike is left to disembowel the chicken. All this happens in just the first part of the episode which culminates in Mike finding a dead body outside… Actor Daniel Massey provided an interview to support the play in that week’s edition of the TV Times. As now standard, the episode was not mentioned and instead it concentrated on Massey’s career and home life.
Mills and Marshall also delivered ‘Come into My Parlour‘ (9th March 1971) which due to a strike by ITV technicians was recorded in black and white. The opening shot of rain on a window was another example of this recurring motif in the series. Deanna Ward (Beth Harris) is returning to the world of work as a door to door salesman for a cosmetics company following an extended break in employment due to her nerves. Her first customer is Mr Dalby played by the ever-reliable Peter Barkworth – enigmatic and compulsive to watch in whatever role. Dalby is a bachelor who promises to buy something for his fiancée. He places an order and Deanna returns to deliver the items, but something bizarre has happened and she finds herself in a perplexing situation… This was the final episode of the regular series.
Two years later a further production, ‘The Party’s Over‘ (31st January 1973), was shown under the series name with Kim Mills directing once more. As well as a reduced running time of thirty minutes the episode was also the only one with a period setting, the 1920s. Edward Fox plays an unfeeling bastard gallivanting with a string of women whilst his wife is at home. She has a heart condition and should not be exposed to stress or shock due to this and is puzzled by a locked door to the cellar in the house. Later, as she undresses, the figure in a gas mask enters the room. She faints. End of part one. The second part starts with Fox apologizing for playing a silly joke and the shock he caused. She asks him about the door and he denies he has locked it. Afterwards in the kitchen, she opens a cupboard and a cat screeches and leaps out causing her another shock. It is almost as if someone is trying to scare her to death… The production is more of a straight forward thriller with a twist ending that is predictable, unsatisfactory and more in line with the type of stories that would make up the bulk of the stories in later seasons of Tales of the Unexpected (ITV, 1979-88). The programme ended on a poor note after several highs in the previous full series.