As things go, I’m still a novice when it comes to Nigel Kneale, the famed British screenwriter. It’s only in the past year or so that I’ve become aware of him. Where I first learned his name I don’t think I could pin down now. I started with Quatermass, rocket scientist & world savior, perhaps Kneale’s most known creation; from there on to The Stone Tape, arguably Kneale’s best work; this past week or so I’ve been digging into his Beasts, an anthology series of six episodes that initially aired in the UK in the autumn of 1976.
Beasts is itself an odd beast. Each episode takes the idea of an animal as it’s heart then sprawls out so that we the viewer arrive at the periphery & work our way slowly in, coming to that, often horrible, heart in the end. The episode “Baby” is rightfully noted as being a highlight of the series, flawed only by an over exuberant performance by Simon MacCorkindale as a vet newly arrived in the country with his pregnant wife. A discovery as the couple remodels their cottage leads to mounting eeriness & the double bladed discovery of the title’s revelation. “During Barty’s Party” opens with a dreamy anxiety slowly lensing in on a married couple’s tense evening, all the while expanding that initial anxiety into dread then on into real horror almost solely by the use of audio. “Special Offer”, the series first episode, gives us a few immediately recognizable characters that play subconsciously on our expectations & arrives at a horror borne of sympathy & pity, more than any accustomed awfulness.
One of the interesting things about Beasts is that all of our entry points into the stories are those that come from the downtrodden, the ignored or disrespected. It feels like the theme of animals & beasts, creatures “beneath” us or easily misunderstood by us drives the the shapes of these stories. In “What Big Eyes” Michael Kitchen plays an animal control officer, a protagonist in a actively sympathetic & protective roll. That episode also features what I thought was one of the standout moments of the series with a heartrending epiphany by Madge Ryan’s character Florence, daughter of Patrick Magee’s scientist/antagonist. In “Dummy” Bernard Horsfall plays perhaps the most downtrodden character in the series, & in “Buddyboy” the character Lucy shares a dreamy, destructive symbiosis with the titular animal. “Baby” & “During Barty’s Party” feature wise wives whose husbands are far too sensible to see the danger at hand. Pauline Quirke’s poignant turn as Noreen in “Special Offer” echoes many marginalized souls who don’t understand why the World’s works are as sad as they are.
The other thing that is so striking about these episodes is how lean they are, how focused. Stories on television are not told this way at all anymore. It’s a sharp reminder how effective good writing & creative production can work on a viewer’s mind. A great deal is done with quite little in these shows.
I’m trying to be cagey about the details. I went into each episode cold & I recommend that anyone who hasn’t seen them, or has forgotten what the episodes were like, does so too. Fortunate for all, a kind soul has offered them on YouTube. I’ve included links below in the original series order: