Friday, March 1, 2013

Beast of Burden

AGAINST THE CROWD - MURRAIN (1975)
BEASTS (1976)

The thing in the wall: Jo (Jane Wymark) increasingly feels that she and her unborn child are in danger, in the BEASTS episode BABY.

MADE for the ATV anthology series AGAINST THE CROWD - a set of self-contained dramas focusing on outsiders - the Nigel Kneale-penned MURRAIN acted as an impromptu pilot for BEASTS, produced for the same ITV studio a year later. MURRAIN is the story of young vet Alan Crich (David Simeon), who discovers that a stretch of farmland may be hexed by Mrs Clemson (Una Brandon-Jones). Crich attempts to mediate between the alleged witch and the disgruntled local farmers, led by Mr Mably (Bernard Lee). Featuring Kneale's preoccupation of the clash between the supernatural and the rational, the play is also influenced by the writer's own superstitious locale growing up on the Isle of Man. There are no real scares in the programme, rather it is a character-and-mood piece where the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions.

Kneale's six stories for BEASTS would detail another of his favourite themes, that of the primal instincts that exist within civilised man, and the effects when repressed feelings are set free. BABY sees the mummified remains of a strange creature found in a country cottage; BUDDYBOY features a haunted dolphinarium; THE DUMMY has an actor taken over by his monster suit; SPECIAL OFFER tells of a gremlin loose in a mini-supermarket; WHAT BIG EYES shows an amateur scientist carrying out experiments to turn himself into a wolf; and rats are on the rampage in DURING BARTY'S PARTY.

Set in North Cornwall, the farmers of the AGAINST THE CROWD play MURRAIN believe a witch is responsible for the plight of their pig stock and the illness of a local boy.

Kneale was always an "ideas" man, but BEASTS shows a developing flair for character and dialogue. Thankfully then that the series features a number of stoic performances from fresh faces and seasoned veterans - including Simon MacCorkindale, T.P. McKenna, Martin Shaw, Clive Swift, Thorley Walters, Pauline Quirke and Elizabeth Sellars. Particularly effective are the verbal battles between Michael Kitchen's RSPCA officer and Patrick Magee's eccentric pet-shop owner in WHAT BIG EYES. For a such a character-driven series, the misses are uniform to a handful of weaker performances. Quirke is fine in SPECIAL OFFER, but her co-workers seem staid in what is in itself the silliest and most repetitive episode. BUDDYBOY is the oddest of the tales, and the fusion of Shaw as a porn theatre owner taking over a disused dolphin pool never quite gels in story or execution. The actor is suitably bullish, put the performance of Pamela Moiseiwitsch as a girl who has an umbilical connection with the ghost of the star dolphin is overtly glacial.

As BEASTS is made up of six totally unrelated entries, the quality ultimately dips, despite Kneale's impressive scope of imagination. The doom-laden BABY is almost a companion piece to MURRAIN, as it features another vet at odds with a superstitious rural community. It is widely considered to be the best - and certainly the most chilling - of the series, and as Andy Murray points out in his programme notes to the Network BEASTS DVD, BABY also has connections to QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, with builders unearthing "a sinister, ancient capsule which turns out to contain ... something." THE DUMMY is also a highlight, and a real joy for Hammer fans, as Kneale draws on his underwhelming experiences working for the production house. There is little doubt that with the casting of Walters and the feature being made by a fictional British company - REVENGE OF THE DUMMY - are thinly veiled snipes at his time with the famous studio.