Scorpion Tales (1978)
Scorpion Tales occupies a lower tier in the pantheon of great British horror television of the 1970s, but did it deserve more than a single series? Andrew Screen investigates the programme's six-episode run...
With productions such as Beasts (1976) and Thriller (1973-76) under their belt, ATV evidently had a taste for horror/thriller anthologies and returned to the format with Scorpion Tales in 1978, a series of six tales with a sting in the tale, as suggested by the title. Lasting a single season, the series was produced by David Reid who would later help to bring Sapphire and Steel (ITV, 1979-82) and the Hammer House of Horror (ITV, 1980) anthology series to the screen.
The striking title sequence, featuring daredevil scorpions swinging over flames before they enter into a wrestling match, was conceived by Alastair McMunro with an evocative prog rock-inspired theme tune by Cyril Ornadel (who would also contribute to Sapphire and Steel). The series was filmed at ATV’s Elstree studios and gave a free hand to a clutch of veteran writers which resulted in a solid, if often pedestrian, range of tales and approaches with some unsettling and unexpected twists. Francis Essex, ATV’s Head of Production, commented on the series in an interview with the trade paper The Stage: ‘Viewers who like to work out what the end is going to be will, I hope, have some fun because there is always a twist on the last page.’ (‘Major Drama Series and Pop Show from Birmingham’, The Stage and Television Today, 2nd February 1978, page 15). The series of hour-long episodes, billed in the listings TV Times as a series of mystery plays, was networked on Saturday evenings at 8:30 pm or 9:00 pm. Despite being heavily promoted in the TV Times the series did not capture the expected audiences and was shelved after one series.
Opening story ‘Easterman‘ (29th April 1978) featured a top drawer cast with Trevor Howard, Don Henderson and Patrick Allen in a story written by Sweeney creator Ian Kennedy-Martin under the direction of David Reid. Howard devoured his surroundings as detective George Mavor who, on the eve of retirement, becomes embroiled in a string of grisly murders carried out by a serial killer known only as Easterman. During his investigations, Mavor begins to realise the killer has a personal vendetta against him. This was an energetic opener helped considerably by Howard in full force spitting nuggets of quotable dialogue such as ‘You’re a bastard catastrophe, son!’ Maver is an interesting central character, on the verge of retirement and heavily reliant on alcohol to dull the impending boredom of his twilight years, but also still stubborn and intolerant in his views of the world. His language and attitude are antiquated as he casually fires missives towards ‘poofs’ and ‘bum boys’. This is an element counterpointed by Don Henderson playing the menacing Easterman whose homosexuality is far removed from the clichés spouted by Mavor.
The newspaper The Daily Mirror helped to promote the new series; ‘Hell-raising Trevor Howard – star of scores of major films – is to lead ITV’s assault on the TV ratings for the spring. Howard, 62, will appear in the first of six plays under the general heading Scorpion Tales – mystery plays with a sting in the tale. Howard has appeared only once before in a television play in Britain – Catholics in 1974… He agreed to take the part because he liked the script and the establishment bashing character.’ (‘Mystery with a Sting in the Tale’ by Tony Pratt, Daily Mirror, 21st March 1978, page 18). Howard seemed keen on the project and commented on the role ‘It’s a marvellous story and the character I play is a rough, top cop with no respect for anybody. It’s pretty controversial, too, knocking at the establishment.’ (‘Bulldog Howard‘ by Peter McGarry, Coventry Evening Telegraph, 29th April, 1978, page 30). The episode was also promoted in the TV Times with an article on Trevor Howard and his wife, Helen Cherry, which concentrated his hellraiser lifestyle and his obtuse reputation rather than his role in the episode. A fortnight later the magazine announced that Trevor Howard had been signed to star in a series based on the hard-bitten Inspector Mavor with Ian Kennedy Martin also on board to write the scripts. Sadly the project never materialised. David Reid was certainly keen for the production to go ahead and commented at the time that ‘I always have this little hope that we might get a spin-off from one of them, especially the character that Trevor Howard is playing.’ (‘Major Drama Series and Pop Show from Birmingham‘, The Stage and Television Today, 2nd February 1978, page 15).
The second episode was ‘Killing‘ (6th May 1978), a cyber-thriller from K9 creators Bob Baker and Dave Martin under the direction of Don Leaver who had previously overseen the Beasts episode ‘The Dummy‘. The killing in the title refers to a financial killing committed by computer programmer Hawkins portrayed by Jack Shepherd who was fresh from playing Renfield in a BBC production of Dracula (BBC, 1977) the year before. For years Hawkins has used his technical knowledge to siphon money from banks to invest in the stock market. His actions have gone unnoticed until Martha Fredericks (Angela Down) discovers the scam during the installation of new software. A cat and mouse game ensues as Hawkins tries to cover his tracks. If nothing else the episode, set mainly within a computer room, highlights the analogue nature of computer technology in the 1970s as well as showing Baker and Martin’s typical high concept approach to material.
‘The Great Albert‘ (13th May 1978) was David Reid’s second directorial contribution to the series and was the only story in the series with a genuine supernatural basis. Young Matthew Ward (Max Harris) is the son of an antique bookseller whose parents are on the eve of divorce. He discovers a 16th Century book of spells and decides to try the influence the situation by casting a spell in the book. However, his plans go disastrously wrong when his mother’s lover, who may even be the personification of the Devil, murders his father. This is a suspenseful yarn from John Peacock, the screenwriter of the Hammer films Straight on Till Morning (1972) and To the Devil a Daughter (1976), only let down by fudged and ambiguous ending. To support the episode the TV Times had a two-page feature written by Colin Wilson entitled ‘That Old Black Magic – Is It All in the Mind?‘ The article was wide-ranging looking at casting spells, how the mind may play a role in the power of witchcraft and how Jayne Mansfield may have made contact from beyond the grave. There was also a box out on the 1972 case of the poltergeist Philip, invented by Canadian researchers, who apparently took on a life of his own and manifested in a series of hauntings! No direct mention of the contents of the episode featured in the article.
‘The Ghost in the Pale Blue Dress‘ (20th May 1978) was David Reid’s final shot at directing an episode for the series. Jeremy (Children of the Stones) Burnham contributed a twisting serpentine script featuring a father and son locked in a bitter dispute over the family inheritance. When the son’s fiancée enters the scenario the father is beguiled by her resemblance to his deceased wife and becomes convinced of a plot to bring about his downfall. A completely commanding Tony Britton headlined as the father, Sir Wilfred Grafton, with supporting turns from Geoffrey Palmer and Basil Dignam. Supporting publicity material highlighted that ‘Tony Britton has a special reason for enjoying making tonight’s Scorpion Tale (Granada, 9.00). The recording took place at ATV’s Elstree studios at the same time as his fifteen-year-old son Jasper was making his first TV appearance in a musical show.’ (‘Weekend TV Extra‘ by Monica O’Hara, The Liverpool Echo, 20th May, 1978, page 7). The Stage reviewed the play and liked what they saw; ‘A very neat and workmanlike production in which every element – writing, direction, acting – combined in a successful example of teamwork to produce a highly watchable piece of entertainment.’ (‘Many Twists but No Loose Ends‘ by Hazel Holt, The Stage and Television Today, 23rd May 1978, page 21).
‘Crimes of Persuasion‘ (27th May 1978) featured Beasts actor Anthony Bate and was directed by Shaun O’Riordan from a story from Nicholas Palmer who had produced Beasts. Bate portrayed MP Sir Robert Haines who is in the process of making a deal with an Arab politician, a woefully miscast Christopher Benjamin who delivers an embarrassing Middle Eastern performance that could only have been attempted in an earlier decade. Meanwhile, Haine’s mistress, Jean (Susan Engel), realises she is about to be traded in for a younger model and she starts to hatch a plan for revenge in a dark, Hitchcockian tale of bitter revenge. Critic Patrick Campbell gave the series a begrudging recommendation; ‘Palmer’s sordid little tale about an MP and his mistresses was competent, if somewhat predictable.’ (‘Poor End to Thames Season of Plays‘ by Patrick Campbell, The Stage and Television Today, 1st June 1978, page 18). The TV Times again supported the series with a leading two-page article which almost completely avoided the programme itself (quite an art form!). Titled ‘Families at War‘, the feature made a brief reference to the family feud at the heart of the episode before discussing real-life feuds including the Hatfield and McCoys in 1920s America!
The final episode was the alarming ‘Truth or Consequences‘ (12th August 1978) from actor turned writer Brian Phelan, who had also scripted the effective ‘The Disappearing Man‘ for the previous anthology series The Frighteners (ITV, 1972), and director John Bruce. Lieutenant White (David Robb) is sent on a secret training course designed to build his resistance to interrogation which proves to be more challenging than he expected as he starts to have difficulty distinguishing between fact and fantasy. The drama lacks any real twist as viewers are primed to anticipate, but compensates by being a well-made study of a man undergoing an extreme psychological change. The Stage felt that the ‘It was a well-constructed mixture of two interesting themes: the forces of darkness inside and outside an organisation, and the problem of identity…the whole thing was realised in a tight, compact unit, which played its game inside and outside both the institution and the mind.’ (‘Secombe with No Surprises‘ by Hazel Holt, The Stage and Television Today, 6th July 1978, page 21)
Neither the best nor worse ATV anthology series Scorpion Tales sits squarely in the middle of the franchise’s credits and often feels like extended episodes of the later seasons of Tales of the Unexpected (ITV, 1979-88) with solid stories but predictable story twists. The quality of the cast and acting goes a long way to carry the series with particularly entertaining turns from Tony Britton, Trevor Howard and Anthony Bate and episodes are worth catching for this reason. For a series of its period, the series did attempt to usurp some of the attitudes of the era with its rejection of gay stereotypes and the strong streak of feminism in the episodes ‘Easterman‘ and ‘Crimes of Persuasion‘. With no truly outstanding episodes, the series is largely unrecognised though it’s available for modern audiences to make up their minds courtesy of a Network DVD release.