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Beasts (1976)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Beasts (1976)
ATV for ITV, tx. 16/10-20/11/1976
6 x 60 min, colour
Directors includeDon Leaver
 Donald McWhinnie
 Don Taylor
ProducerNicholas Palmer
ScriptsNigel Kneale

Cast: Bernard Horsfall (Clyde Boyd); Clive Swift (Derek 'Bunny' Nettleton); Patrick Magee (Leo Raymount); Michael Kitchen (Bob Curry); Jane Wymark (Jo Gilkes); Simon MacCorkindale (Peter Gilkes); T.P. McKenna (Dick Pummery); Martin Shaw (Dave); Elizabeth Sellars (Angie Truscott); Anthony Bate (Roger Truscott); Pauline Quirke (Noreen Beale)

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Sinister stories on the faultline between Man and the animal kingdom.

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In 1974, writer Nigel Kneale parted company with the BBC, his main paymaster for over two decades and the producer of his groundbreaking dramas from The Quatermass Experiment (1953) to The Stone Tape (1972). 'Murrain' (Against the Crowd, tx. 27/7/1975), his first script for ATV, used an isolated and superstitious farming community as a setting to explore ideas of witchcraft. Little recognised at the time, 'Murrain' was an atmospheric and intriguing work, which contained the seeds of the following year's compendium, Beasts.

Taking as their loose theme man's relationship with animals, Beasts' six dramas were modest in scale and budget, but they made the best of their limited resources and were driven by Kneale's distinctive imagination. Perhaps the most original story, 'Buddyboy' (tx. 30/10/1976), features the ghostly influence of an apparently super-intelligent dolphin, while 'What Big Eyes' (tx. 13/11/1976) was a modern re-working of the Red Riding Hood fairytale which saw Kneale - not for the first time - inhabiting similar territory to fantasy author Angela Carter.

A second theme of the stories is dysfunctional or fractured relationships. 'Baby' (tx. 6/11/1976), almost a companion piece to 'Murrain', centres on a young expectant mother and her vet husband, whose dream new life in the country is imperilled by the discovery, entombed in a wall of their home, of a hideous mummified creature - apparently a curse. As the mother's morbid obsession with the creature grows, so too does the gulf between her and her selfish, insensitive partner. In 'The Dummy' (tx. 20/11/1976), a horror actor, broken by the destruction of his marriage, fuses with his monstrous alter-ego and goes on a murderous rampage, while 'Special Offer' (tx. 16/10/1976) sees an awkward checkout-girl's unrequited love for her egomaniac boss manifest itself as a destructive poltergeist.

But probably the most successful tale is 'During Barty's Party' (tx. 23/10/1976), in which a feuding middle-class couple are united in terror as they realise that their isolated rural home is under siege by a relentless army of rats. Kneale's story was inspired by Hitchcock's The Birds (US, 1963), but where that film's avian menace was very visible - a challenge to the special effects of the time, whose limitations arguably somewhat undermine the film today - Kneale's threat remains hidden, its presence revealed only by some very effective sound effects which fuel the sense of mounting hysteria. Thanks to this, the drama remains chilling even 30 years on.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. 'I'm so glad you're home' (4:57)
2. Something on the radio (3:46)
3. Talking to Barty (3:22)
Complete drama: 'During Barty's Party' (49:23)
Company of Wolves, The (1984)
Kneale, Nigel (1922-2006)