The BBC is notorious for having wiped many of its best-remembered television shows, a fact that no doubt contributes to them being so well-remembered. My son, for instance, all of 13, is angry that the tapes of some early and apparently brilliant “Doctor Who” episodes were re-purposed for lesser content. In his mind, they remain high points of British television, science fiction and Western Culture, despite the fact that he has never seen them. So it was with great excitement that I discovered last week that three episodes purported to be, to one degree or another, the best horror ever produced for British television are, in fact, available to stream — a 1968 dramatization of M.R. James’ “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad;” a Nigel Kneale teleplay called “The Stone Tape” (1972) and one of three surviving episodes of the short-lived series “Dead of Night” (1972) called “The Exorcism.”
I learned of these shows from a terrific new viewer’s guide by Kim Newman and James Marriott called “Horror!” In it, “The Stone Tape” — apparently made as part of the “Dead of Night” series before it was canceled — is regarded with great reverence. That I found it streaming on Amazon.com for a $1.99 was a great surprise.
Starring Jane Asher and Michael Bryant, “The Stone Tape” is about a team of slumming scientists gathered at an abandoned country estate to find a better medium than magnetic tape with which the world can record their Pink Floyd records before the Japanese do. And wouldn’t you know, they find it, though it’s not a medium that can really be monetized. The conceit will be familiar to fans of Kneale’s “Quatermass” shows and movies, which combined straight horror with science fiction as well or better than Lovecraft. Asher, looking 10 years older than she did in “Deep End,” made only two years earlier, is attractively neurotic, and her back story with Bryant’s lead researcher is expertly and effectively vague. The denouement manages the rare feat of being essentially what the viewer expects while still adding an unexpected, and morbid, layer to the cake. If it fails to inspire the chills promised by those who saw it as children — no doubt hiding behind the sofa, unbeknownst to their parents — that is an experience that can’t be recreated in an adult.
More than one blog/web site has deemed “The Exorcism” the single scariest television show, period. I found a nice, crisp version streaming on YouTube, complete with the show’s nicely creepy opening. But this one was a bummer, a one-act, stage-bound agitprop with four unappealing characters trying to figure out why they’re stuck in a remodeled cottage on Christmas Eve. The wine is blood! The windows won’t break! The turkey is bad! Overwritten and overacted, it only comes to life during an astonishing monologue by Anna Cropper, whose mistress of the house becomes possessed and relates a tale of unbearable sadness that kicks the drama into overdrive just as the show is winding down. That it ends on with an easy “twist” is a major disappointment.
Better by far is “Whistle and I’ll Come to You,” which in fact might be the scariest thing made for television. I also found a remarkably clean version of this on YouTube, and it creeped me out more the second time I watched it — a rare feat. Horror is hard, and capturing the unique dread-and-frisson of James nearly impossible. But director Jonathan Miller, shooting on black and white film, finds a singular tone of somber dread that gradually unfolds into in-your-face terror. He is aided immensely by Michael Hardern, who plays James’ typical academic protagonist as a raging bore, and one of the great sound designs of all time, credited to Ron Hooper and John Ramsay. The soundtrack made me jump twice, not with that percussive scare chord made necessary by M. Night Shyamalan, but with otherworldly, guttural growls and the sickening ruffling of clean bedding. Miller shoots much of the action in reflection, and uses what appears to be a flexible mirror to create a funhouse wobble to Hardern’s world that I’ve never seen used anywhere else. The climax, its terrifying in-camera effects shot in stomach-drop slow motion, is worthy of nearly 40 minutes of dreadful crescendo. This is the real winner here, an absolute must-see.