Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Frighteners: Bed and Breakfast

I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the whole genre of scary TV shows. Last year, for example, I bought the boxed set of Thriller, only to find that it didn't really do a great deal for me. And yet this is strangely idiosyncratic, because as a child I loved both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected. Yet strangely I have never taken to Hitchcock's films, finding them too biased towards the suspense and away from things actually happening, and the two TV shows I loved so much as a child have failed to hold their interest for me as an adult. Another classic film series of the horror genre to which I was exposed as a child and which I find has lost its interest now is the Hammer House of Horror films. I have a feeling that their interest as a child was contingent on the fact that I was staying up beyond what mother would want, she was asleep upstairs, and the films contained a hint of sex - once again the horror and the sex alike never really came to fruition.
For all these reasons I have been ambivalent about buying the recently-released DVD of the virtually unknown series, The Frighteners. The reason this show is virtually unknown, even in the cult TV world, is that the show was originally cursed by bad scheduling, so that is has never actually been seen in its entirety outside of the London Weekend Television area, its placement in the graveyard slot after midnight, and its being cursed by a strike which meant that some episodes were made in black and white, so that they were doomed to the midnight slot, anyway.
The thing I like about The Frighteners is that the frightening stuff is present right from the start. For example in the episode called The Treat the very fact of the three old men glaring at each other in the car with the orderly putting on a brave face is so atmospheric: you just know that this situation contains the sort of depths of awfulness which drive people to mental illness or just plain denial. Unfortunately this is a shortcoming with the episode I focus on here, that while it feels as if it is a criminals-violating-respectable-peoples-lives plot at first, it soon becomes very obvious that the whole point of the episode is Mr and Mrs Cartwright getting their comeuppance for something they have done themselves. I say this is a weakness, but perhaps I am reading these shows through the lens of the sort of TV I usually watch, where you know that someone (whether it be Steed or the men from UNCLE) is going to arrive and put it 'right', or rather do something to relieve the agony. In The Frighteners, the fact that you can see what is coming, merely intensifies the pain, and in fact there is only pain in this show. This is a different world from the feel-good TV I normally watch, and in fact it makes a pleasant change.
Bed and Breakfast starts wonderfully with no lengthy preamble, just straight into the action - and I think this is what makes The Frighteners really different to many of the suspense series of the time. In fact, this is indeed high praise, but it reminds me very much of two Avengers episodes - Game, with its theme of individual retribution, and, more obviously, Take-Over, although of course there the take-over wasn't itself the point. Bed and Breakfast manages to have the same unsettling combination of respectability and lawlessness - with the twist that of course the apparently-respectable guests who drive up in their Rolls Royce are the ones taking the law into their own hands. The fact that both sides of the plot here are visibly opulant and respectable indicates that The Frighteners has a talent for turning the language of television on its head and really messing with the viewers' heads.
Bed and Breakfast also does an excellent job of creating an emotion in the viewer - not merely the emotion of suspense in which something terrible is going to happen. That would be far too predictable and in fact Bed and Breakfast creates a much more frightening sensation that the viewer really doesn't know what the hell is going on. I'm sure I don't need to tell readers here that Ian Hendry is excellent as the rather deranged-seeming seeker of bed and breakfast - he intones the lines in such a way that it is clear that not anywhere near all is being told, and that is carefully kept for the end. I have watched this episode twice in the preparation of this post, and on watching it again it is wonderful the way the visitors insist that the Cartwrights are running a bed and breakfast. This is a very clever and confusing plot device, because after all, going around persuading people that their home is a guest house, is a rather unusual undertaking!
Full marks for plot from me, so what about everything else? I also love the 1970s clothes and cars in this series. The colour palette is the one that I usually think of as '1970s drab' - I'm sorry but this show keeps its punches for messing with the viewers' thoughts, and there is a limit to how visually exciting this show is ever going to get. I have one other criticism, which is that the picture is perhaps not as clear as it could be, although I'm assuming that some restoration must have taken place to the forty-year-old recordings. I am illustrating this post with a screen shot so that you can see the actual quality of the picture. The sound, on the other hand, is perfect.
Regular readers will know that I tend not to like these actors who appear in everything so that you tend to end up wondering where you've seen them before. In Bed and Breakfast the cast of familiar faces show their quality by being their characters rather than themselves, and in fact all of the episodes of The Frighteners include solid, quality actors of the time, rather than mere celebrities. At this stage of his life Ian Hendry's voice was becoming wonderfully gravelly (I said when I started this blog that I wouldn't mention my own TV crushes because otherwise this blog would become overly about them rather than the shows, but I will make my first exception here to say that Ian Hendry is a permanent crush of mine and my one regret here is that the hairy chest doesn't get a showing). Wendy Gifford is of course talented in all sorts of things as well and being a first class actress, including the RSC and Doctor Who in her credits. John Welsh will of course be familiar to anyone who has watched the TV of the sixties and seventies to any great extent, as indeed will be Gabrielle Daye. While IMDb is trying to tell me that Harry Douglas, who plays an old man, is still alive, which I find rather implausible since he was in films in the 1930s, the length of time is shown by the fact that the only actor I am sure is still alive of the cast is Roye Boye, who plays a chauffeur. You will note the theatrical standing of the cast and see that this is one of the things which puts The Frighteners in a different class from the many disposable shows of the 1970s. This is really quality television - I know I keep saying that, but it keeps hitting me in the face.
Finally, I am very pleased to have discovered The Frighteners, given my frequently-repeated fear that no more old TV will ever be released. My only fear for it is that as a show which hasn't been seen much or at all in its native UK, people won't buy it for its reminiscence value, and it may continue to be little-known, hence this post. It is also in danger of being missed because of tending to belong somewhat in a TV plays genre, rather than in the suspense genre. Nonetheless, I like this show very much, and would recommend it to anyone who likes the sort of TV I write about here.

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