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Shadows of Fear

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Edward Fox
Michael Craig
Mark McManus
Bottom Line: 
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We don’t see too many of them these days, but back in the sixties and seventies the dramatized play was a staple of the medium of television, originating in the model that governed the look of all early televised drama, which was founded on the studio-bound three-act stage play, filmed as-live by multiple cameras controlled from a studio gallery. The echo of this system could still be seen in the method and style of much British drama from the sixties, seventies and even continuing on into the eighties; a series such as “Doctor Who” was still an exponent of this outmoded system right up until its cancellation in 1989. When it was reborn in 2005, only the occasional sit-com was still being made that way.

Anthology series were once extremely thick on the ground, particularly when TV was starting to flower and find its own dramatic persona -- distinct from that of theatre and cinema -- in the sixties and seventies. Many of these plays were never repeated, and in some cases the tapes have long since been wiped, leaving only half-formed memories in the rare precocious viewer who happened to catch one or two of them as a child. “Shadows of Fear” is one such little-remembered series of suspense-type tales made by Thames TV in 1970. Eleven dramas were filmed in all, all of them featuring a small cast and eschewing the supernatural for character-based stories founded on tense human relationships and unusual situations. Perhaps the most memorable thing about this particular collection is the extremely creepy and affecting title sequence which features an animated series of images depicting an alienating, barren landscape of semi-derelict streets, bare trees and odd figures peering out of dim windows, all to the accompaniment of Roger Webb’s haunting theme music, combining lilting dark melody, shimmering Edda dell’Orso-style vocals, and unintelligible ambient shouts at the back of the sound mix – all of this leaving a strong, unshakable impression of brooding menace before the drama that is to proceed it has even begun.

Now released by Network, all eleven plays here are shot on video and look extremely primitive and stagey even in comparison to other television drama of the day. There is only one episode that includes any exterior shooting at all; the others either recreate exteriors in the studio or, in one instance, resort to the use of primitive CSO (Colour Separation Overlay), which creates a very odd and unusual impression. 

The first drama, “Did You Lock Up?” taps into that paranoid mood of fear of crime and violence that seems to have become something of a rampant obsession in the drama of the early seventies. Both Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” and Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” were released in the UK in 1971, while this play was first broadcast in June 1970 (six months before the rest of the series). In it, a middle-class couple become the victims of a burglary while they’re away for the weekend at a hotel to celebrate their marriage anniversary. When they return, their home has been smashed up and all their valuables stolen. Written by one of TV’s most prolific talents, Roger Marshall (credits range from numerous episodes of “The Avengers” on to just about every major TV series of the seventies), who contributes quite a few episodes to this anthology, the drama stars Michael Gwen (better known to cult movie fans as the character Charles Thatcher from the Australian splatter move “Turkey Hunt”) as the husband – a writer of academic textbooks -- and Gwen Watford (“Taste the Blood of Dracula”, “Never Take Sweets from a Stranger”) as the wife. We see the break-in taking place at their home – committed by two delinquents (one of whom sports some carefully cultivated ‘seventies’ sideburns, while the other is played by an extremely young Mark McManus, later of “Taggert” fame ) --  inter-cut with the unsuspecting couple unpacking and preparing for bed at their hotel. After the burglary is discovered a few days later, the play goes on to document their reactions to the violation of their home:  the wife, Moira, passes from anger and despair to an unwillingness to even want to stay in the house any longer, but finally settles for wishing simply to blank the whole experience from her mind. The husband, Peter, meanwhile, at first seems to be taking a philosophical outlook, but gradually becomes consumed with hatred for the people who did this to them. When a police Inspector calls round and admits that there is little prospect of the culprits ever being caught, and, furthermore, that they will almost certainly come back because the house is so isolated, and therefore offers a perfect opportunity for thieves, Peter becomes obsessed with the idea of wanting to catch those responsible and make them pay. He begins his own investigation, and in the meantime turns the couple’s home into a virtual prison, with bars on all the windows and steel shutters barring entry into the living room … At fifty minutes the material is perhaps stretched a little thin, but the episode does build to a satisfying conclusion despite a few plot holes (it is never adequately explained how the criminals initially knew so much about the flaws in the Astles’ security arrangements, for instance) and finishes with a twisted flourish of macabre victim ‘wish-fulfilment’.

“Sugar and Spice” once again centres on the home, and without ever entering supernatural territory, succeeds brilliantly in building a tense forbidding atmosphere out of every-day surroundings. Shelia Hancock gives a great performance that manages to hint at dark troubles lurking beneath the home life pleasantries and haunting the mundane exterior of drab family experience. Set entirely within a semi-lit suburban house on the traditional ‘dark and stormy night’, the story has Hancock playing a housewife returning home late from work one night to find her sullen and uncommunicative daughter sitting alone in the house and her younger son apparently missing. The episode is once again, slightly too long, but the tense atmosphere, strange relationships between the characters and hints of violence stewing beneath the surface of family life are all very well evinced by director Patrick Dromgoole. The multi-camera studio recording does leave numerous boom mike shadows visible and some of the creaks and bangs in the house appear to be the result of crew members moving about noisily off screen, but thankfully this doesn’t detract from the strange atmosphere of the piece and grim payoff.

“At Occupier’s Risk” is another strange tale based around the odd interactions of a small group of characters in an isolated setting. The young Gemma Jones plays a lone motorist, Judith, who stops off at a tatty and otherwise uninhabited hotel while attempting to escape the harassments of an amorous hitch-hiker she’s unwisely picked up on her journey. The husband-and-wife couple running the place give off distinctly unwelcoming vibes themselves, though: the husband (Anthony Bate) has a habit of materialising soundlessly and staring threateningly at her, while the wife (Annette Crosby) doesn’t bother disguising her reluctance to accept Judith’s unheralded appearance, despite the hotel’s emptiness. Weirder still, despite the unwelcoming atmosphere, Judith seems determined to stay on for several more days after the first night. It emerges that the couple has a secret locked up in the scullery and they keep finding poor excuses not to let Judith use the phone so that she can tell someone where she is. There’s a threatening, Pinteresque atmosphere to these proceedings; all the performances, particularly that of Annette Crosby, are good as far as they go -- but unfortunately, the episode takes its leave on a ridiculous twist that is really pure nonsense (you can go back through it afterwards and count the scenes that don’t really make sense in the light of the last minute revelations) and which rather undermines the atmosphere of the preceding action.

“The Death Watcher” is one of the better episodes in the series. Judy Parfitt stars as a sceptical psychologist, Emily Erickson, who’s written a book on belief in the paranormal. She’s invited by Pickering, an eccentric psychical investigator, to observe his latest experiments in communicating with the dead. However, the investigator (played by John Neville), has rather more in store for the unsuspecting academic than just the predicable pseudo-scientific gobbledygook of an average paranormal researcher. His macabre theory proposes that ghosts draw heat energy from the living in order to manifest themselves -- and that only those who die in violent circumstances are able to successfully take part in the process. Emily, being of an impeccably scientific persuasion, would have a better chance of succeeding in this, reasons Pickering, so he lures her to an isolated country dwelling and, with the help of a former asylum attendant (Victor Madden) keeps her prisoner there in preparation for his plan to turn her into a ghost after the violent death he has planned for her! The premise of this tale does rather fall down in that Pickering’s plan involves keeping Erickson locked up for weeks, having convinced his assistant and the inhabitants of the nearby village that his ‘patient’ is insane, and that he is providing essential treatment for her. This could only work if there was no headline news coverage of the disappearance, which seems unlikely. Nevertheless, Parfitt is excellent here in the role of a likable, level-headed scientific empiricist plunged into a macabre world in which she is treated as though she is deranged and untrustworthy by everyone around her. John Neville is equally enjoyable in a traditional role of the madman whose true insanity is disguised by his fake credentials as a donnish, bow-tie -wearing medical authority.

“Repent at Leisure” is another tale by Roger Marshall, this one essaying a pleasing twist on a familiar plotline in which a newly married wife begins to suspect that her husband intends to kill her. Here, aging upper-middle-class widow Isobel (played by Elisabeth Sellers) strikes up a holiday friendship with affable working-class ship’s steward Harry (George Sewell) while on a luxury cruise. Acting on impetuous impulse, she decides to marry him. Back in London, Harry brings his sister Jenny (Alethea Charlton) to meet his new bride and her upper-crust best friend Peter (Peter Cellier), who jokingly sows some seeds of doubt in Isobel’s mind about Harry’s true intentions in marrying her. As they attempt to settle into married life, Isobel finds adjusting to Harry’s ‘uncouth’ habits a testing experience now that the romance of their whirlwind marriage has passed: he hangs about the house all day and will not let Peter help him find the kind of job Isobel deems ‘suitable’; it’s clear the two have different lifestyles which are very much incompatible. But then one day, Isobel discovers something in a locked trunk that makes her believe that Harry and his sister Jenny are not who they say they are after all, and her increasing irritations and suspicions of his motives take on a darker complexion. This is an interesting attempt to subvert some well-established conventions of the sort of ‘min-Hitchcock’ psychological thrillers Hammer frequently churned out in the mid-sixties, focusing on class and bringing in issues of race and even attitudes to immigration as they stood in the play’s late-sixties/early-seventies milieu, in quite an interesting way near the end. 

In “Return of Favours” Jenny Linden (Barbara in the colour feature film version of “Dr. Who and the Daleks”) plays Judith, a young, attractive hairdresser who regularly borrows her friend Maureen’s (Caroline Blakestone) flat for illicit assignations with her married lover, a painter and decorator called Roger (Robin Ellis). But on this particular occasion, the spare room they usually use is locked, so they decide to use the owners’ marital bed instead … only to be caught in flagrante by Maureen’s husband Gordon (George Cole), who has been in the flat the whole time observing them! He proceeds to behave very strangely, offering them both tea and cake and asking prying questions about their private lives; then he tries to borrow Gordon’s van to move a large trunk he claims to have locked in the spare bedroom. After they leave, Judith becomes convinced that Gordon has murdered Maureen! This is one of those tales that hinges entirely on the twist ending, but in this case the viewer will easily see what’s coming from about the half-way mark and, once again, the hour long format stretches the material way too thin. There is, though, a nice performance by George Cole who brings perfectly judged subtlety to his role as the coiled-up, inadequate but quietly vengeful husband with a meticulously worked-out plan.  

Free from the limiting obligation to bring a twist to the end of the play, “The Lesser of Two” instead works by gradually altering our perceptions of the relationships between the three main characters of the piece, until, by its conclusion our perspective on events has undergone such a radical shift that our sympathies are no longer quite so clear cut. Godfrey Quigley and Margery Mason are the two main leads. The play starts with what appears to be a suspicious character breaking in through the kitchen window of a house where an elderly woman is alone in bed upstairs.  This initial suspense set-up proves to be a prelude to a much more unusual tale in which Mason plays the wife of a convicted child killer, whose husband has been let out of prison after a nine-year jail sentence. Harry (Quigley) wants to come back to his old home on his old estate, and resume life as before, constantly referring back to the early days of the couple’s marriage and unaware that, while he was locked away, his family suffered a terrible ordeal at the hands of the rest of the community they’ve continued to live amongst, because of their association with him. Though Harry still claims he was innocent of the crime, the couple’s son Terry (Geoffrey Hughes) has taken against him particularly badly, blaming his father for all his own failures in life while constantly being indulged and doted on by his harassed mother. The sense that this mother and son have built a co-dependent relationship in the errant father/husband’s absence, the balance of which is now being undermined by his return, provides the theme for the first half of the tale, but gradually, as news of Harry’s return spreads around the small estate, the viewer’s perception of the threat in the situation is altered radically. This is a much more subtle character piece than many of the other plays in the anthology and feels a good deal more adult in its nature.

“White Walls and Olive Green Carpets” is almost a two-hander starring Ian Bannen and Natasha Parry as ex-lovers Robert and Lena, who meet up at the home of Robert’s dead wife (who has recently died in a motoring accident) after he convinces her to go there with him for a few hours while he picks up a few possessions. The trip becomes an excuse to exhume the events of their previous break up (with Lena expressing thankfulness that they’d already split up before Robert’s wife’s death), but she eventually starts to experience forebodings that they are not alone among the shroud-covered furnishings of the house. This tale seems promising at first, has a few macabre touches and arresting images, but ultimately fails to convince. As with so many plays in this anthology, it could have done with about twenty minutes of padding shaved off the running time. It takes a long time to get there, but the concluding minutes take it into unexpectedly Gothic Hammer territory.

“Sour Grapes” stars Daniel Massey and Isobel Dean (“The Quatermass Experiment”) as a holidaymaking couple in Spain. Arriving in the early hours of the morning at their luxury villa in the Spanish countryside, they’re disturbed to find blood in the sink and broken glass on the bathroom floor. Unseen by the unsuspecting couple, a mean-looking man (Ray Smith) is lurking around the premises too, and eventually a loud knocking at the front door is heard as they unpack their belongings. The lurking man turns out to be a poker-faced German (a language which neither of the couple speak or can understand) and is large and dishevelled in appearance. Eventually, the confused holidaymakers let the man into the villa, assuming he wants to use the phone. Now their ordeal begins! After a number of stories in the anthology which have flirted with the well-worn home invasion suspense narrative, before transforming into something else entirely, this is the first standard account of it. Along with the Hitchockian touches of suspense, there is an agreeable streak of surreal humour throughout the play, as the invader’s actions are often bizarre and incomprehensible (forcing the couple to pluck and cook a chicken for him at gunpoint, which he then consumes in its entirety, for instance!). The standard set-pieces in such a scenario are played out, but the play finishes by examining the aftereffects the experience has on the couple, and what it means for their relationship in the future. It’s an interesting piece, but somehow feels a little incomplete and not fully developed.

“Come into My Parlour” is equally interesting. Once again, apart from brief walk on parts by one or two others, this is a two-hander between Peter Barkworth (“The Power Game”) and Beth Harris as Deanna Ward: a door-to-door cosmetics salesgirl, returning to work after an anxiety-based breakdown. Unfortunately, her first stop is the flat of apparently homely and charming John Dolby (Barkworth) who, under pretence of wishing to buy some cosmetics for a wife he clearly doesn’t have, invites her to come in for a chat, adroitly taking her shoes off her to ‘dry them off’ in the kitchen, and then regaling her with his woes and listening to her own account of how she finds it difficult to meet and talk to people (thus accounting for this job, which acts as her own cognitive-behavioural therapy). The fact that Deanna fails to spot warning signs that Dolby is slightly less harmless than he purports to be, and is, indeed, actually boosted in her confidence by his attention and flattery, only increases the sense of foreboding that things aren’t going to turn out well when she later returns to deliver his parcel of cosmetics a few weeks later. This is a tense and ambiguous psychological piece, with a standout performance by Peter Barkworth at its centre. The episode also stands out from the others for being the only one here in black-and-white, although this was apparently due to a technicians’ strike affecting the operation of the Telecene machine. 

The final episode here is something of an oddity. Unlike the others it runs at only twenty-seven minutes rather than the standard fifty-two minutes and It wasn’t broadcast until 1973, a full two years after the other ten episodes. The production also feels that much more sophisticated – and with its double twist-ending, seems like it would have been more at home included in the “Tales of the Unexpected” anthology run rather than this series. The tone of it is very different from the moody, spartan, rather edgy character that defines the vast majority of the other plays here, and it’s the only one of them to have a period setting. Edward Fox is deliberately completely over-the-top as a villainous Edwardian bounder, who, after being secretly informed by his wife’s doctor (Edward Black) that she has a delicate heart condition which could result in her death if she receives any sudden shocks, promptly sets out to dispose of said wife so that he can take up with his pretty secretary instead. With his theatrical wild-eyed looks and lip-smacking sneering tone, Fox is clearly playing the whole thing for laughs, something which really makes this episode incongruous among its ten partners on these discs. His character comes up with all manner of outrageous schemes in order to scare his unsuspecting wife to death, including such crude attempts as sneaking up on her wearing a gasmask, locking her in the cellar after having filled it with rats, and fabricating a ghostly haunting. It’s a trivial piece to end on, the twist being so completely predicable that it engenders the need for a second one that takes this final mini-playlet into the realm of pastiche.

“Shadows of Fear” has undoubtedly dated rather badly over the years, particularly from the primitive production techniques in which boom mikes and camera shadows are ubiquitous; but the rarity these days of the anthology format is a reminder of how diverse and unpredictable TV was allowed to be back when there were only three channels for UK viewers to choose from.  There is a broad range of stories included here, all of them rejecting the supernatural for the psychological, and nearly all of them grounded in ideas about the home space being invaded or disrupted. Some of them are more serious-minded than others and some work better than others; but the experimental diversity of material on offer makes this series an intriguing and often striking archive curio that will provide something to please anyone who holds a candle for the unusual and the offbeat.

Available from Network Releasing, the eleven plays are featured on three discs, along with a short photo gallery of production stills from each play.

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