Tuesday, 9 February 2016

What I watched in my holidays - by Scott Harrison aged 42

I was only 6 years old when the Hammer House of Horror TV series originally aired nearly 36 years ago.

But let’s not dwell on that.

I can’t really recall where I was at the time. Instinctively I want to say on holiday – down in Cornwall, sitting at a table in a B&B eating fish and chips while watching TV – but I guess that’s just my default position as a number of my more important childhood viewing memories were made while on holidays in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Tales of the Unexpected, for example. I distinctly remember lying there on the fold out sofa bed in the living room (this was about 1981, remember), a glass of coke in one hand, the novelisation of the film A Spaceman in King Arthur’s Court in the other, watching Roald Dahl sitting there in his armchair and introducing the next nasty little bit of half-hour macabre fluff on offer. Or there’s the original mini-series of V. I distinctly remember walking into the kitchen of the B&B (or guest house, it might have been a guest house) and seeing the trailer for V on the small black and white portable that was sitting on the foldaway kitchen table. The first episode was broadcast later that night.

But back to Hammer House of Horror.

We can safely say that I can’t remember where I was when I first saw this series. It was early September, so I must have been at home. But watch it I did. I remember that much at least. In fact, I remember it all too vividly. I also remember being utterly terrified by it!

Revisiting TV series and films that you watched when you were just a nipper is an odd feeling. Especially when those memories are strongly linked with such potent feelings – be they happiness, sadness or, as in this case, absolute terror. The first thing that struck me when rewatching this classic series (and, yes, it is a classic, mark my words) is how much of it I remember, and how much of it terrified me as a child of six going-on seven.

Scenes such as aging estate agent and would-be adulterer Denholm Elliot trapped within an endless, ever-changing dream of lust and murder; or Leigh Lawson and girlfriend Angela Bruce desperately trying to break the curse of the African statue before it caused the death of their friends and, inevitably, themselves; Rosalyn Landor dressed in virginal white and desperate to escape the Black Magic ceremony which will end her life; or Kathryn Leigh Scott’s slow decent into insanity as she is convinced that the man she has accidentally killed has returned to haunt her…

I think I also have a vague recollection of Diana Dors and her small brood of ragged werewolf children keeping two unsuspecting travellers prisoner in their house, but seeing as I actually watched this episode about thirteen years ago in a hotel room down in Brighton with Lee Harris after having lunch with author Robert Rankin I can’t, hand on heart, say that this memory is from it’s original transmission.

But most of all I remember the episode The Two Faces of Evil. Oh my god, how I remember that episode! The family driving along country lanes, seeing the ‘scarecrow’ in the field, the car crash, the father being dragged from the car by the ‘scarecrow’, the father replaced by the doppleganger, the doppleganger father being unable to speak and blaming it on the bandaged throat…the memories just go on and on. And as a six year old (almost seven year old) boy I had never been so terrified. So much so that it actually made me a bit weary of my own father for several days afterwards.

The series may not have the same impact now as it did when it was originally broadcast (that was, after all, thirty-six years ago…but, as I said, let’s not dwell on that!!) but it is still a visceral little gem, a series with a huge set of balls swinging between its legs, a series with bags of imagination and verve that is sadly lacking from our TV screens today. It’s a series that still shocks with its gore and refreshingly adult nature (some of the episodes even have decapitations, murders and nudity in the pre-credit sequences alone!!) which smacks of a time when TV audiences were still happy to be shocked, disgusted, or totally creeped out without feeling the need to immediately reach for the telephone to complain about how disgusted they were that a TV programme had the temerity to make them feel an  – gasp! – emotion.

It’s just a pity that it never carried on past a single series of 13 episodes. Sure, four years later the same company gave us Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (or as my dad always called it, Hammer House of Mystery and Suspenders – my dad had a habit of doing that, renaming TV titles, so that you just couldn’t quite take them seriously anymore, no matter how hard you tried), but it was never quite as good, not quite as balls-out due to the gradual taming down of British TV that was happening at this time. No, by this time sex, violence, nudity and swearing was slowly being outlawed on British TV until, by the end of the 1980s / beginning of the 1990s a strange blandness had spread across the airwaves – a time in which Carry On films were unofficially banned and classic sitcoms were hacked to pieces in case they offended…well…anyone at all really.

I miss TV series like this. And I think British TV misses them too. What I wouldn't give to see an anthology series nowadays with half the courage, attitude, swagger and talent that's on display here. Come to think of it, what I wouldn't give to write an episode for a TV series half as good as this one was!