Andy Murray. Into The Unknown, The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale. Headpress 2017.
Does a book examining the six episodes of Nigel Kneale’s television series, Beasts warrant 430 pages? Beasts is a large, attractive paperback with copious black and white illustrations and undoubtedly a labour of love from author Andrew Screen.
He spent six years on the project. It’s exhaustive and exhausting. Everything you would ever want to know about this television fantasy is here and a lot more (maybe too much) besides. Yet before I explain why this good, definitive and yet sometimes irritating book is excessive, I’d first want to re-engage with a critical viewing of the six teleplays and point up some of Andrew Screen’s conclusions (Screen is often a very astute guide).
A welcome opening extra in this book is the chapter on Murrain. Murrain can be viewed as a loose pilot for Beasts. Although there’s no specific animal presence it fits in well with Nigel Kneale’s ideas. A murrain (pronounced mu-rin) is a death curse usually synonymous with a plague or disease affecting livestock. It was carried over into the days of European witchcraft to signify the power of a witch to blight humans as well as their sheep and cattle with her curse.
On a second viewing I’m still impressed by Kneale’s remarkable skill in creating such a rounded witch character as Mrs Clemens (superbly played by Una Brandon Jones). She’s a recluse living in a cottage close to a farmer named Beeley (Bernard Lee) whose cows have been mysteriously dying. Beeley is convinced that Mrs.Clemens was the cause of this and an eight year old boy falling sick. When Beeley is joined with his gang of farm workers the drama takes on a Peckinpah Straw Dogs attitude. The feet on the ground vet Crich (David Simeon) clashes with a supernaturally inclined mob. All is quickly complicated by the vet’s growing suspicion that Clemens might just really be a modern day witch. Kneale cleverly maintains an ambiguity throughout Murrain.
Here Andrew Screen is notably perceptive: "What mattered to him (Kneale) was the shape of the story; his conclusion does not need to confirm whether Mrs. Clemens is a witch or not. What matters is that it confirms the beliefs of the characters with the drama."
During Barty’s Party is TV horror drama at its most potent. Kneale has said that what interested him was making The Birds with no birds. I agree with Kim Newman’s assessment that this episode is pure horror. Substitute rats with birds and we have a disturbing rat infestation fable that plays with concepts that the rats are the characters' unconscious fears. That’s also a major part of the strength of Hitchcock’s film.
During Barty’s Party has an English countryside setting that recalls Du Maurier’s short story. It’s beautifully acted by Elizabeth Sellars and Anthony Bate who well convey the bristling disappointments of their marriage as they combat the menacing rats (never shown) in their house. Sellars attempts to get a message of help through to a radio phone-in programme but they are too far away to be rescued. Kneale’s savage parody of saccharine music / chat programmes of the 70s (Barty’s Party) reminded me of the manipulative audience control depicted in Kneale’s prescient The Year of the Sex Olympics from 1966.
Although Andrew Screen gives us a rather over-detailed account of During Barty’s Party he rightly drew my attention to Don Taylor’s highly focussed direction and the terrific sound design of rat effects. A note for Andrew Screen - on page forty seven of the book he speaks of some classical music played on the radio, during a respite from the rat terror, as being hard to identify: it's a few seconds from the adagietto of Mahler’s 5th symphony.
Buddyboy is both the weakest and strangest episode of Beasts. Its sleazy tone and ghost genre weirdness make for a genuine oddity of British seventies TV. I mean the presence of a ghostly dolphin that leads its female companion Lucy (Pamela Moiseiwitsch) to commit suicide shortly after she’s got involved with businessman Dave (Martin Shaw), who plans to renovate the rundown dolphinarium into a porn movie cinema. It feels incoherent and a bit silly. Kneale makes some sense of Buddyboy’s ideas but not this main premise. "This muddle of elements makes Buddyboy just too complex for the casual viewer to unpack." That’s Andrew Screen again and he’s spot on.
The Dummy. Imagine a failing actor whose career is revived by playing a Godzilla-like monster through a successful, international film franchise. Yet it’s the monster who receives all the acclaim, not the actor in the dummy suit. One day he arrives on a film set to discover he’ll be acting alongside the man who has just run off with his wife. The monster (Clyde the actor played by Bernard Horsfall) goes berserk and kills a small part actor in a graveyard scene. He then commences to wreck the set. Clyde’s wife and the police are contacted to prevent further death and destruction.
The Dummy is an amusing spoof on Hammer Films and a dark portrayal of an insecure actor robbed of his dignity, wife, family and turning into an anonymous entity in a monster suit. A dummy fighting against circumstances beyond his control. A studio controlled monster caught in the horrible banality of his betrayal. As Nigel Kneale says, "If a monster appears in an everyday place, its much more frightening than some Gothic castle where you expect it to be."
Special Offer deals with the phenomena known as telekinesis that received a lot of press coverage in the 1960/70s. Films such as Carrie and The Medusa Touch popularised telekinesis. Yet until this Beast episode I couldn’t recall a British TV film or TV play that did. Set in a small supermarket it has Pauline Quirke giving a fine performance as a Noreen the till checkout woman. She’s unprepossessing, clumsy and has a crush on her antagonistic manager. Noreen’s telekinetic power causes the items to fall off the shelves and explode their contents over customers. The shop owner’s called in to reason with Noreen but to no avail. My only problem with this otherwise excellent play is shared by myself and Andrew Screen: "Plotwise it is puzzling why Noreen is attracted to Colin; he shows her nothing but spite and contempt whilst leching after prettier girls who catch his eye."
The episodes What Big Eyes and Baby are as dark as During Barty’s Party but not as scary. Well Baby has one great shock moment and What Big Eyes has fascinating ideas about lycanthropy as a mad, but realisable, practical aim and the horror of cultural inheritance (think Quatermass and the evolution of humans from Martians). Patrick Magee is on top form as Raymount the crazy scientist.
"He (Raymount) gave a brief lecture to the British Association and capped it all by turning into a wolf...He shot a sample of his filthy bloodstream into that young wolf. I had to put her down, Joe. I felt that was the only thing." says RSPCA man Bob Curry (Michael Kitchen).
After Raymount dies his daughter Florence, deeply resenting his treatment of her, smashes up his laboratory and calls Raymount a fake. Madge Ryan gives a heart felt performance as the cheated daughter. And Screen is correct to give her brilliant acting considerable attention in his fine chapter on What Big Eyes.
Baby is about a young married couple who move to the countryside. Jo (Jayne Wymark) is pregnant with her second child and still feeling an almost Freudian sense of guilt over the loss of her first. Her husband Peter (Simon MacCorkindale) is a vet and a very controlling husband. As their cottage undergoes alterations they discover an urn containing the disturbing foetal remains of an unknown creature. Its presence traumatises Jo who, after much foreboding, witnesses a horrid witch-like thing / mother suckling the creature. As in Murrain, Kneale creates an atmosphere of tension and ambiguity. Does Jo imagine she sees a supernatural progenitor or really encounter a monster, a loathsome entity – an ancient beast?
Baby is still highly regarded as the scariest episode of Beasts. I personally would now rank During Barty’s Party as first with Baby a close second. Both have a disturbing soundscape design and play with the stresses and strain of a marriage. Baby’s couple are played out in fraught counterpoint against Dick (T.P. McKenna) and Dorothy (Shelagh Fraser) as Peter’s grossly assertive vet colleague and his bossy wife. This couple exude their own verbal bestiality in Baby and manage to appear differently repulsive than the monster.
Like the other episodes of Beasts, Baby serves to subvert the series aim of presenting our bestial side in relation to animals. Kneale’s writing is subtly complex and cunningly indirect as it packs in so many ideas, some work, others fail, into a very human narrative about frailty and power. Andrew Screen admirably sums up the achievement of Beasts: "I would argue that the very essence of the popularity, influence, and longevity of Beasts is down to the stories wrongfooting the viewers and telling unexpected tales."
I began this review by saying that Screen’s book is irritating. By that I mean its great length flaws his commendable treatment of Beasts. Did I really want a potted history of witchcraft in the Murrain chapter? Or say three pages on werewolf films and a werewolf history? Was it really necessary to give so precise a comparison between scripts and films? Did we require all that background history on actors and directors? So much of this information could have been removed from the book’s chapters and placed as succinct footnotes at the back. Or the least relevant edited out.
For me The Book of Beasts should have been a third shorter and therefore more readable. But finally Screen’s labour of love is to be highly praised for its intelligence and insight into the achievements of the remarkable Nigel Kneale. No one else would have attempted The Book of Beasts and all ardent Kneale fans will certainly want to buy a copy.
the Unknown, The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale by Andy Murray, then I urge you to acquire one. It’s by far the best piece of writing I’ve read on Kneale’s life and career. Not only does it sensitively discuss and analyse Kneale’s landmark Quatermass serials, 1984, The Stone Tape (for me his masterpiece), The Year of the Sex Olympics, Beasts, The Woman in Black (maybe the scariest TV ghost film ever produced) but the adaptations (non-genre) of Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer and others – I was particularly pleased at the attention Murray gave to Kneale’s last produced work Ancient History, a script for the tv series Kavanagh QC. It’s an emotionally searing drama about a doctor being tried as a Nazi war criminal.
Murray’s research is excellent. We learn a great deal about how controlling BBC TV was in the 1950s and how much Kneale is always complaining about the little money, or none at all, that he was paid. Accompanying this fascinating social history of the TV and film industries, is the disappointing fact that the highly prolific Kneale wrote so many scripts that were finally never filmed – I’d love to see his scripts of Lord of the Flies or Brave New World being turned into feature films!
Murray adeptly traces how influential Kneale’s ideas have been for other writers (e.g. Ramsey Campbell) and directors (especially John Carpenter). His chapter on Kneale’s childhood days on the Isle of Man (a place more responsive to superstition and myths than Christianity) reveal how formative that was in shaping Kneale’s imagination. Kneale’s love of H.G.Wells is stressed and we are constantly reminded that Kneale never considered himself as a single track genre writer of either SF or horror. He hated those labels.
“It’s a fierce intelligence, and a particular sensibility for the uncanny, for want of a word. It’s those two things combined. It’s realising that you link one to the other and you’ve got something powerful. He’s one of those few writers who’s ideas-driven, and yet still is engaging. Because he can do character as well, although you wouldn’t think of him primarily as someone who writes characters. His characters are always strong. And yet, it’s always the ideas that are at the heart of what he does.”
That’s Andy Murray using a quote about Kneale by Jeremy Dyson of The League of Gentleman. A shrewd observation of the craftsmanship and vision of a writer who is still to be properly recognised by the BBC as the godfather of TV scriptwriting. Murray says that Kneale and producer Rudolph Cartier made serious, original writing possible for the small screen. I agree.
Nigel Kneale alongside Dennis Potter, early Ken Loach, David Mercer, Trevor Griffiths and a few others made TV an art form for great drama. And Kneale’s 'ideas-driven' Quatermass and The Stone Tape have an ambition and power that brilliantly wed science with ghosts, the devil, aliens and our constant anxieties about what it is to be human: speculating that we may be only partially human and still evolving this stuff we call human matter.
- Alan Price.