‘The Frighteners’ forgotten no more

15th May 2017

Today the wonderful people at Network release a DVD of 13 half-hour thrillers made by LWT in 1972 as the anthology strand The Frighteners. Their description is as follows:

Featuring the talents of John Thaw, Ian Holm, Warren Clarke, Ian Hendry, Tom Bell, Ray Smith and Robert Urquhart, The Frighteners features thirteen haunting tales of malice and manipulation, vengeance and mounting terror. It features stories from acclaimed novelist and playwright William Trevor, Bouquet of Barbed Wire author Andrea Newman, Get Carter writer/director Mike Hodges and Secret Army co-creator Wilfred Greatorex.

My copy is on its way, and I’ll write again when I’ve taken a look, but irrespective of what I think of the series, the simple fact of the release is well worth celebrating. In part this is because the title is yet one more contribution to Network’s truly wonderful work in making accessible much of the extant drama in ITV’s archives. This is a public service of great value to all of us interested in television history – and the fact that it is being achieved in a commercial context is only one of its remarkable aspects.

The release of The Frighteners, however, is also notable because it is the first fruit of a collaboration between Network and the invaluable AHRC-funded research project, Forgotten Television Drama. Based at Royal Holloway College, University of London, this initiative has been exploring ‘why many television dramas made in the regions and nations of the UK between 1946 and 1982 have been ‘forgotten’ while others have been elevated to the canon of ‘classic’ British television dramas (where ‘British’ often means ‘English’).’ Forgotten Television Drama has organised conferences and seasons at BFI Southbank, stimulated articles, run an excellent blog – and now it is advising Network on titles to draw from the nether reaches of the ITV archive, as well as writing programme booklets and offering further context online.

In a recent post for Forgotten Television Drama, Billy Smart describes The Frighteners in this way:

The Frighteners is a particularly neglected and little-known British television drama, its 13 plays not quite fitting into the cult TV or horror niche that might have found them a later audience. The series’ terrifying title appears to promise nasty stories like Dead of Night (BBC 1972), or twists in the tale along the lines of Tales of the Unexpected (Anglia 1979-88). The Frighteners has similarities with these programmes, but its affinities are as close to Armchair Cinema (Thames 1974-75).

A 16mm film series, The Frighteners uses devices of horror and fear to tell stories rooted in the concerns of the (early 1970s) present day; mental illness, parental separation, surveillance, housing lists, the aftereffects of colonialism and National Service. Producer Paul Knight intended The Frighteners to have “a distinctive flavour. There are no well-worn horror themes. Instead we show ordinary people threatened by situations which have ceased to be normal and are now out of control. Ordinary people suddenly strained to breaking point.”

To further whet your appetite, Billy Smart has also uncovered and posted a contemporary review of one of the key titles in The Frighteners, an episode called The Manipulators, directed by Mike Hodges. This television film is pretty much contemporary with Hodges’ classic British gangster film, Get Carter, 1971, and if you know that stylish production then John Phillips review for Television Today on 3 August 1972 is all the more resonant:

No doubt about it, this was a quality production. Every single shot was well thought out, skillfully executed and meaningful to the whole. We never did find out whether the sinister pair staked out on a watching brief above a butcher’s shop were on our side or not but that was immaterial except as a debating exercise afterwards, because the magnificent shock climax at the end (incidentally surely one of the most realistic shootings ever) totally unexpected and superbly shattering made any further and possibly tedious explanations completely unnecessary.

I found the director’s totally explicit use of very big close-ups quite fascinating. A tape recorder deck on which we could sea the brown stain of the magnetic film on the head — a smear of animal blood on the pseudo meat porter’s hand — a typewriter carriage crashing into startling focus. All these and many more were memorable frames from a very classily directed thirty minutes.

[…]  Since Mr. Hodges wrote his screenplay and then directed it there was no middleman to consider and his visualisation was both unhindered and, let’s face it, unchallenged. In a word it was complete. The net result was an astonishingly good half hour of dramatic television.

Interesting to note that the whole production was shot on film. Videotape and editing can work wonders these days but this showed that the old steam flint still has a lot to offer.


  1. Billy Smart says:

    Thank you, John. Its been rather more by accident than by design that ‘The Frighteners’ has turned out to be the launch release for the range, but its worked out rather well, especially as its garnered attention from the Cult TV audience. When I’ve read responses that say both, “I’ve never heard of that” and “That sounds good!” its felt like exactly the sort of response that we’d hoped for. Its original minimal audience, when combined with the prestige of many of the contributors makes it a good flagship for forgotten drama.

    As Amazon has already announced it, I can confirm that our second release should be ‘The Nearly Man’ (Granada), in a package that will include both the original 1974 single play and the subsequent 1975 seven-episode series. We screened the initial 1974 film at the BFI in February – https://forgottentelevisiondrama.wordpress.com/2017/02/12/forgotten-dramas-2-at-bfi-southbank-the-eagle-has-landed-and-the-nearly-man/

  2. I was delighted to hear about this release as it was not a series I was aware of. So many thanks to you for mentioning it and for Billy for helping to get it released. Down through the years Network have released titles that I remember from their original screening i.e. Mr. Rose, The Guardians, Virgin of the Secret Service, Zodiac, The Owl Service, Callan, Public Eye, Gazette, Hadleigh, City/Secret Beneath the Sea. I have never been disappointed in any of them and I am delighted that I now have them on my shelves. I look forward to more releases in the future and hope that one day some more of my favourites from the 60s and 70s will get a release- especially The Odd Man the series that introduced us all to the Insp. Rose character.

  3. Billy Smart says:

    As its now up on Amazon, I can confirm that ‘Studio 64: The Crunch’ (ATV 1964) is to be our third release, backed by two later Nigel Kneale plays made for Central, ‘Unnatural Causes: Ladies’ Night’ (1986) and ‘The ITV Play: Gentry’ (1988)

    “Best known for his pioneering ‘Quatermass’ stories and harrowing adaptation of George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’, as well as later TV triumphs like ‘The Stone Tape’ and ‘The Woman in Black’, Nigel Kneale is widely regarded as one of Britain’s greatest scriptwriters. Making his name at the BBC in the 1950s, he subsequently wrote acclaimed dramas for ITV over the following decades of which three are presented here.

    The plays on this set showcase some of Kneale’s most enduring themes: a deep sympathy for the plight of the individual facing an unimaginable threat; the unease and paranoia of the Cold War era, and fears of an uncertain near-future; and the volatility and potential menace of the crowd.

    THE CRUNCH stars Harry Andrews as a prime minister attempting to avert a nuclear catastrophe in London; Maxwell Shaw, Anthony Bushell and Peter Bowles are among his co-stars.

    LADIES’ NIGHT is a chilling story of misogyny as members of a gentlemen’s club turn on a woman who ridicules them; a strong cast includes Alfred Burke, Ronald Pickup and Bryan Pringle.

    GENTRY stars Roger Daltrey in a blackly comic suspense drama in which a couple buy a shabby house in an up-and-coming area but find themselves drawn into the aftermath of an armed robbery.”

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