Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Supernatural (1977)

Broadcast once in 1977, and then relegated to the BBC vaults to surface only in bootleg editions from time to time, the BFI has finally granted one of the most obscure of British horror anthology shows a DVD release.       SUPERNATURAL was conceived and written (except for one episode) by Robert Muller and ran for eight episodes. All of them are presented here over two DVDs. Each tale is set in the Victorian era, and centres around a gentlemen’s establishment called the Club of the Damned. The running theme of the series is that whenever a new individual wishes to gain membership of the club they have to tell a tale so terrifying that it will impress those present into letting them join. If they fail, the penalty is death. With the stakes set so high, it’s a wonder some of our storytellers even bother turning up considering the slightness of the tales they have to tell.
We begin with Ghost in Venice. Robert Hardy is actor Adrian Gall. An incident which took place in Venice on a previous visit still haunts him, and he is determined to get to the bottom of it. Resolution comes, but not quite how he expects. Ghost in Venice has some nice sets but the story’s a bit dull, takes ages to go nowhere, and the acting is of the ‘BBC pantomime for adults’ variety.
Things perk up a bit in all kinds of ways for the next story, a two-parter that goes by the respective episode titles of Countess Ilona and The Werewolf Reunion. In a remote province of Transylvania, the Countess Ilona (Billie Whitelaw) mourns the recent death of her husband by inviting four of her ex-lovers (Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Edward Hardwicke and Charles Kay) for an intimate party at the family castle. It turns out there may be some uncertainty as to who fathered her young son, who has a weird old lady who looks after him when she's not cackling and glancing meaningfully at the machetes that hang on his bedroom wall. 
It turns out that each of the Countess’ lovers has wronged her in the past, and that her husband is now her undead werewolf servant. He might just as well be invisible as well for all we get to see of him. By the end of the story nearly everyone's dead and the identity of the individual relating this tale to the Club of the Damned is thoroughly unsurprising.
Countess Ilona and its sequel make for a peculiar bit of British TV drama. The sets are lovely and some of the exterior shots are atmospheric, but at the same time there’s a ramshackle, and occasionally downright odd, feel to the film-making that will make this one either hard going or compulsive viewing, depending on your tastes. Actors fluff their lines but press on regardless. Ian Hendry doesn’t fare too badly despite obviously having had a fair number of breakfast beers before making his way onto the set. Edward Hardwicke bumps into a table during a soliloquy and obviously isn’t meant to, and the boom mike swings in and out of the frame enough times that it could form the basis of a drinking game. The shots of Billie Whitelaw walking her dog in the mist-wreathed forest are atmospheric but get repeated frequently and for no good reason and, in one especially bizarre transition device, one girl’s nipples fade to another’s eyes. All of this had me expecting to see Jess Franco’s name as director on this one, and if you’re a fan of his incoherent but occasionally fascinating style of film-making you may wish to give these episodes a look. 
Next up is Mr Nightingale. Jeremy Brett stars in a completely bonkers story as a young man who, while staying with a family in Hamburg, encounters his doppleganger in his bedroom one night. He also sees black seagulls, buildings going all wobbly, and has a tendency to pull funny faces at breakfast. Even coquettish Lesley-Anne Down can’t help him, but then she’s a bit mental too, getting very excited at the idea of asking Brett to burn down a ship moored in the harbour. There’s a lengthy discussion about omelettes close to the end that borders on farce, and the tale ends on a downbeat note that’s less effective for some of the oddness that has preceded it.
Things get a bit better on Disc 2. In Lady Sybil, Denholm Elliott and John Osbourne play the sons of Catherine Nesbitt, who is convinced a shadowy figure that might be her dead husband is trying to kill her. Viktoria is the only episode not to be written by Robert Muller (it’s by Sue Lake instead) and features Lewis Fiander as a closeted gay man whose wheelchair-bound wife dies. When he marries again it’s to Space 1999‘s Catherine Schell, but even she can’t prise him away from the attentions of strapping Norman Eshley. Meanwhile Fiander’s daughter has been given a doll so big she can hardly lift it and the scene is set for his first wife to get her revenge. Night of the Marionettes is a weird take on the genesis of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Writer Gordon Jackson, his unhappy wife Kathleen Byron, and their ethereal daughter Pauline Moran find themselves in an isolated Swiss inn where Sidney Bromley cackles at them and Vladyk Sheybal denies there’s anything strange going on despite the weird noises at night and the appearance of a man Sheybal claims does not exist. Halfway through the episode there’s a truly bizarre marionette show, and it soon turns out that Sheybal et al are manufacturing their ‘puppets’ using materials from the local graveyard. 
Last is Dorabella, a vampire tale with some of the best and most arresting imagery in the series. Jeremy Clyde and David Robb are two young chaps in search of adventure on the continent. What they find instead is a beautiful vampire lady (Ania Marson) and her father, both of whom are keen to continue their bloodline. Clyde falls under Dorabella’s spell and they all end up back at the family castle (actually a bit of scratchy stock footage from Hammer’s SCARS OF DRACULA). Robb tries to convince Clyde that Dorabella’s no good for him until it turns out that Clyde actually isn’t that suitable for her anyway, although there’s someone else close by who might be.
        When compared to the great British horror television programmes of the era SUPERNATURAL can’t measure up to quality stuff like GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS, BEASTS,  or DEAD OF NIGHT. The stories are slight and most of the time there’s very little atmosphere despite the sometimes lavish sets and costumes. I shouted ‘Get on with it’ far too many times at the TV for me to be able to recommend this series without reservations. If you remember it fondly from its initial run then by all means check it out. If you’ve never seen it before you’ll probably find yourself having to be quite forgiving. The BFI's transfer is as good as late 1970s British television can look, and the only extra is a booklet containing essays and a credit listing.

The BFI are releasing the BBC's SUPERNATURAL in a double disc DVD set on 18th November 2013


  1. I think it is so cool that they are releasing on DVD some of the old supernatural TV series from the 70s etc.

  2. I may treat myself to this series for Christmas.

  3. Thank you for your excellent review. I have this theory that the drawn-out parts were deliberately there because people drank more in the evening when these shows were on, so the slow bits were for them to either get up and get another drink or come out of their stupor and get a catch-up from the person with them.