***The following research is heavily indebted to the pioneering work of both Sheldon Hall (2014) and Wayne Kinsey (2016)***
Introduction: Did you see that bit where he chopped her head off with a shovel?
The generational experience of popular culture is beset by pitfalls as a research topic, not least the temptation to make sweeping generalisations which can reflect less the author’s penetrating insight than (i) his age (typically advanced), and (ii) his resulting prejudices (typically irrational). On the other hand, the underlying timelines involved—the rise and fall of a particular movement—are in contrast often fixed and objective. If, for example, you are a UK horror film fan, then a central pillar of your appreciation is likely to be the (Hammer-led) British Gothic tradition, which lasted c.18 years 1957-1975. But paradoxically—given the source material’s blanket X-certificate nature—if you were born after the cycle’s debut in 1957, you will not have seen a single one of the films concerned on their original run at your local cinema. You will have watched them on television.
The shared social experience of watching films on TV during the 1970s and early 80s (when only three channels existed, and home video was still in its infancy) remains a relatively unexplored area, but now seems increasingly key to an understanding of how a lifelong enthusiasm for the genre was sparked in fans of a certain age, many (including the present writer) now hitting their half-century. The following exploratory essay will attempt to sketch in the relevant history (and draw some tentative conclusions as to its possible significance) via a five-part analysis: (i) a short account of the historical background to the screening of films on British TV, (ii) a brief outline of the related context in place by the turn of the 70s, (iii) a selective list of key TV horror-film seasons 1969-83, (iv) a discussion of the subsequent arrival and impact of home video, and (v) some random musings as to how all this may have shaped the tastes and enthusiasms of a generation of fans growing up over the 1970s.
- i) The Background
Although feature films had been shown on British TV from soon after its launch (ie from 1937 on the BBC and 1955 on ITV), their supply was initially extremely restricted. The film business bluntly loathed television, viewing it as an upstart rival for their audiences, and for many years the only product available for TV purchase was a mix of independently-released B-features, pre-war material (for which the Majors’ rights had either lapsed or been sold on), plus a small number of foreign-language films. This deliberate blockade crystallised in 1958 with the formation of ‘FIDO’—the Film Industry Defence Organisation—which over the next six years methodically acquired “negative covenants” for the TV rights of over 1,000 films at a cost of £2m, preventing from them being shown on television for up to 21 years. Any producers or distributors daring to ignore this unofficial ban (and treacherously deal with the TV companies regardless) were threatened with permanent blacklisting on an industry-wide scale.
During this era the two chief TV film-buyers were Lew Grade at ITV plus his counterpart Gordon Smith at the BBC. Grade (1906-1998) is now a near-legendary figure, but Smith (1912-2000) in contrast remains virtually unknown. Following an early career in the film business (beginning at Teddington Studios in 1935), he joined the BBC in 1947, initially as a radio-drama Booking Manager, before moving into television (at Lime Grove) in 1953 as Head of Purchased Programmes, a key position he held up to his retirement in 1969. As with Grade, this involved buying in not only films, but also imported American TV series (for which the quota was capped at between 12-15% of total broadcast output). Following RKO’s closure in 1957, Smith was thus able to acquire most of their back-catalogue (along with a few popular Rank films), while Grade similarly snapped up Ealing Studios’ early output (the deal which provoked FIDO’s appearance), plus Warner’s (third-party) pre-1949 titles. But such opportunities were rare.
This changed in 1964 thanks to a pair of unrelated but near-simultaneous coups. Grade cut a deal with Sam Goldwyn in the US for a major package of fifty classics, while Smith (under pressure to supply an about-to-launch BBC2’s ‘Vintage Years of Hollywood’ proposed evening slot) similarly negotiated with MCA to acquire Paramount’s complete pre-1948 library. FIDO vociferously objected to both deals, but Goldwyn in particular fought back hard, writing to PM Alec Douglas Home (amongst others), bluntly accusing the industry of economic blackmail. Faced with this level of political controversy FIDO had no option but to retreat, and in September announced a new policy—though they stubbornly retained most of the rights they already held, they ceased to acquire new ones, and conceded that films over five years old could now be sold direct to TV without objection. The two broadcasters thus suddenly had access to an estimated 9,000 films, with their only effective competition being each other.
- ii) The Context
Following this breakthrough, at the end of the decade a generational-handover took place for the buyers. Leslie Halliwell (1929-1989) had joined Southern TV in 1958, moving to Granada a year later. In 1968 (having demonstrated both the necessary expertise and business acumen) he became ITV’s chief film buyer, a hugely influential position he retained (also taking in Channel 4 from 1982) right up to his retirement in 1987. Meanwhile, over at the BBC, Smith was replaced in 1970 by Gunnar Rugheimer (1923-2003), a cosmopolitan Swede (in Canadian TV from 1952) who became their General Manager of Purchased Programmes until his own retirement in 1985. These appointments set up the infamous Halliwell / Rugheimer duopoly which—though barely reported at the time—quietly dominated its era (the two men, both equally spiky characters, were apparently not fond of one another). Either way, they proceeded to engage in a series of fierce bidding wars for the plum blockbusters which pushed prices up exponentially over the 70s, and occasionally hit the headlines as a result. In 1974, for example, Halliwell paid a record £1.4m for the first nine Bond films (in two separate packages of six and three). The rewards, naturally, were enormous resulting ratings—the premiere of Dr No on 28th October 1975 was watched by an estimated 27m viewers, well over half the population, and still the highest recorded audience for a film on British TV.
By the 1970s, both BBC and ITV were running an average of about seven films per week, though the number of ‘premieres’ depleted rapidly, and from 1972 were far exceeded by re-runs. Films were leased for a specified number of screenings over a fixed period—typically three or four showings over five or seven years—and then went back onto the market, generally to be bought by the other side at a knockdown price. ITV only rarely networked films, with screenings generally staggered locally across its fourteen regional companies. The regions were not obliged to take everything from the available ‘pool’, and had the option of buying-in their own material autonomously, so numbers varied quite dramatically around the country—Granada, under Halliwell’s influence, screened by far the greatest amount overall. Various scheduling restrictions were in place, chiefly related to age suitablility, but also normally preventing two films from running consecutively, in order to both ensure programme variety and placate the unions (who argued that over-reliance on films would take jobs away from TV production crews).
In terms of scheduling, both BBC and ITV stuck to regular weekly slots, though the days / timings of these could vary seasonally, so that a “Midweek Film” for example might shift between Tuesday and Wednesdays, or the “Saturday Movie” move from early to late evening. Adult (effectively ‘X’ cert) material was generally placed after 11pm, and there were endless variations on ‘Late Film’, ‘Late Movie’, ‘Late Night Movie’, ‘Midnight Movie’ etc etc. The BBC (and to a lesser extent ITV) also ran genre-themed seasons, though these could be either comparatively loose—’All-Action Western’, ‘Murder at the Movies’, ‘Hollywood Greats’—or conversely extremely specific (Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan or Carry On seasons for example). Of course, some themes more readily presented themselves for this style of branding than others, and Horror—arguably the most distinctive genre of all—began to be deliberately marketed as such from the end of the 60’s.
iii) The Horror
One of Halliwell’s first major purchases in 1969 was a package of the classic Universal horrors from the 30s and 40s. These were so popular with audiences they were still being theatrically reissued in the early 60s (by Rank, who had a long-term tie-up with Universal), so this represented their landmark earliest appearances on British TV. What seems to be the VERY FIRST such dedicated / branded Horror season was thus launched by Anglia on Friday 19th Sept 1969 as “The Horror Film”, which ran the Universal package until Christmas, then returned in the New Year with some early 60s Hammer titles. Tyne Tees screened many of the same films as “The Monster Movie” in early 1970 (and later in the decade offered another popular long-running series of its own entitled “Fear On Friday”), while Scottish TV similarly began the fondly-remembered “Don’t Watch Alone” in 1971 . Most other regions however continued to stick with the generic “Late Film” or “Late Movie” labels until the breakthrough year of 1972.
The first appearance of the iconic “Appointment With Fear” tag seems to have been on Yorkshire TV in early 1972. This was a sufficiently popular umbrella-title to be widely used across many other regions throughout the ensuing decade, appearing in Thames and Granada (on Monday nights), plus ATV and several others intermittently right up to the mid-80s. Part of its appeal was a specially animated (thirty-second) opening title sequence, more vividly recalled by some fans than many of the films it preceded. This showed spooky images of various birds and animals morphing (via rotoscoping) into classic monster faces including Lugosi’s Dracula, Chaney’s Wolfman, and (finally) Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster. The accompanying music was a low droning synthesiser ominously increasing in pitch, with sudden electronic zapping noises as the faces changed, and a climactic lightning-crash when the AWF logo appeared. The original version appears lost (though the soundtrack survives)—it was remade sometime in the 80s to decidedly inferior effect. This ‘dedicated title-sequence’ tradition (and its basic format) was reused many times over the next ten years for a variety of similar regional seasons.
It would be difficult (not to say confusing) to attempt to list ALL the horror seasons screened across the various ITV networks in the 70s—80s, so instead one particular region—ATV in the Midlands—will be dealt with in some detail.
Although, as we have seen, ATV did not pioneer the ‘branded’ horror-season concept, once they picked it up (in 1973) they stuck with it more consistently than practically any other region, offering at least one—and some times two—such series every year for over a decade. Other than head-buyer Halliwell, it is tricky to pinpoint the programmers responsible, but two of the most likely candidates are overlapping ATV Controllers Bill Ward (1916-1999) and Francis Essex (1929-2009). In contrast to some other regions, ATV ALWAYS ran its horror seasons on Friday nights, thereby catching two key audiences: schoolchildren who would not have been allowed to stay up late on week-nights, plus workers returning home takeaway in hand from the pub, ready for a laugh before bed.
The first ATV ‘Appointment With Fear’ (AWF) season in 1973 ran in two sections, from April-August, then returning in Nov-Dec. The films were a mixed bag of mostly late-50s / early-60s material, though contained titles as old as Son of Frankenstein and as new as Curse of the Crimson Altar. In 1974 AWF reappeared in March and ran continuously all the way through to November, this time chiefly featuring re-runs, though with some first-appearances including Dance of the Vampires and Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. In 1975 it ran from Jan-Aug, again mostly first (or even second) re-runs, though new films included Scream and Scream Again and The Oblong Box (appearing as their five-year screening-bans progressively lifted). The final ATV AWF, in 1976, again appeared in two sections, Jan-May then Nov-Dec. For the first time US ‘Made for TV’ movies such as Gargoyles and The Norliss Tapes were included, somewhat diluting the impact—although these had a more contemporary feel (and featured the occasional cult obscurity like Black Noon), they chiefly lacked the brash sex ‘n’ violence energy of Hammer & co, tending to come across as disappointingly bland in comparison.
One important contributor to AWF’s success in the Midlands was popular Continuity Announcer Peter Tomlinson (with ATV 1972-79, co-creating Tiswas for them in 1974). He rapidly made presenting AWF one of his signature appearances, clowning around while gently poking fun at the films he was introducing. The studio lights would flicker and dim, as Tomlinson (clad sometimes in his pajamas and with a candle on his desk) appeared clutching a small panda (specially knitted for him by a concerned Hereford pensioner) and earnestly pretended to be terrified by the night’s offering. His tongue-in-cheek approach (you could often hear the cameramen laughing in the background) came to define a certain very British attitude to horror, a deadpan alternative to veteran US Horror-Host presenters like Zacherley and Vampira.
From 1977 ATV dropped the Appointment With Fear label, and instead began creating their own bespoke series-headings. The first of these, a season of seven films running Feb-April, was branded “The ATV Horror Picture House”, deliberately tieing-in with their contemporary children’s teatime slot “The ATV Thursday Picture Show”—the latter often featured popular monster movies like Jack the Giant Killer and Captain Sindbad, plus newer Toho adventures including Ebirah—Terror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla.
The ATV Horror Picture House however had a very different feel. In July 1970 the cinema age-bar for ‘X’ films had been raised from 16 to 18 (chiefly in response to increasingly upfront sexual content), and the results began to hit Britain’s TV screens around six years later. The ATV HPH featured premieres of The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil and Countess Dracula (amongst others) in all their bare-breasted glory, and a generation of goggle-eyed Midlands schoolboys could hardly believe their luck. After this excitement, 1977’s second season, “The Friday Film Fantastic”—nine films running Oct-Dec—was much more mildly eclectic in tone, including Frogs and They Came From Beyond Space.
1978 opened with “The Price of Fear”, six films Feb-March (all naturally starring Vincent Price) including Cry on the Banshee and Witchfinder General. Sept-Dec in contrast offered “The Creature Feature”, nine films including The Creeping Flesh and Trog (plus a welcome re-appearance for the vintage Creature From the Black Lagoon). In 1979 another star-based season, “Christopher Lee—Prince of Menace” ran nine films between Feb-April. As with its predecessors, this featured a specially animated title-sequence as a series of b&w Lee portraits (mostly images of Dracula) rippled eerily across the screen. Premieres included Dracula AD 1972, plus a then little-seen obscurity entitled The Wicker Man. The second 1979 season was “A Date With the Devil”, eight occult-themed films over Nov-Dec. The title-sequence was another montage of distorted spooky faces, climaxing (at least in this viewer’s memory) with Les Edwards’ cover-painting of ‘The Djinn’ (from Graham Masterton’s recent paperback). The films unfortunately were chiefly nondescript US TV-movies, with the memorable exceptions of premieres for Legend of Hell House and Blood on Satan’s Claw.
From 1980 (when the historic TV-screening blockade for new films was shortened from five to just three years), ATV cut back to only one Horror season per year, though in May they did also offer a short (three film) Saturday-morning series billed as “The Monster Movie”, featuring premieres of new Godzilla epics War of the Monsters and Monsters From An Unknown Planet. At the same time “The Friday Film Fantastic” returned with six films over May-June, mostly campy re-runs including The Green Slime and The Blob.
1981’s main offering was “Peter Cushing—Master of Terror”, eight films between Feb-April, including premieres of Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell plus the (little-seen) Land of the Minotaur. The quite unforgettable title-sequence for this season (presumably inspired by the old Edgar Wallace thrillers) featured a sinister revolving bust of Cushing (not dissimilar to his House That Dripped Blood waxwork) lit in a fluorescent glowing green, which slowly turned to reveal—gulp—a grinning skull beneath its subject’s right profile, illuminated by a sudden flash of lightning. Terrifying.
On 1st January 1982 the long-mooted ITV licence-changes took effect, with several regions being completely rebranded. ATV (reluctantly) became Central Independent Television, but otherwise stuck doggedly with tradition. Central’s opening gambit (at 9.25am on New Year’s Day) was an extended five-minute promo previewing their new Coming Attractions. In addition to several high-profile debuts (eg gritty local drama Muck and Brass, plus cultish Tiswas-spinoff OTT) this also trumpeted the latest Friday night Horror season, which opened just a fortnight later (on 15th Jan).
Dubbed “Invitation to Terror”, the intro sequence featured the new Central ‘globe’ logo morphing into a skull (accompanied by a soundtrack scream). Eight films were screened from Jan-March, with the headliner undoubtedly being the mid-season premiere of John Carpenter’s Halloween. Alongside this, more traditional Brit instalments like Crucible of Terror and Psychomania began to look unmistakeably dated, while the new UK premieres—The Uncanny and I Don’t Want to Be Born—were a simple embarrassment.
Invitation To Terror can in some ways be seen as marking the end of an era for ITV horror. With the British Gothic tradition defunct by the late-70s (and the revised three-year window for TV screenings now rapidly gobbling up the remaining product), the previously steady supply of fresh UK material was swiftly exhausted. Although Central continued to run intermittent branded Horror seasons throughout the 1980s (“The Scream Queens” in early 1983, followed by the more eclectic “The X-Rater” later in the year) these became increasingly threadbare, now chiefly consisting of one or two repeats, anonymous TV-movies, and random (often very random) continental exploitation.
Additionally (along with most of the other ITV regions), from April 1987 Central began extending its programming late into the night, until by Feb 1988 it was broadcasting 24 hours a day. One consequence was that many of its film seasons were pushed right back in the schedules, to times that were impractical for all but shift workers. By October 1990 and new series “Fright Night”, anyone keen to catch a re-run of Blood on Satan’s Claw had to be prepared to sit up until 2.10am to see it, and not get to bed until after 4am.
By this stage though, the whole context had dramatically changed. The landmark arrival of Channel 4 in November 1982 was a transitional moment for British TV as a whole (particularly in terms of its programming of older films) which we shall return to shortly. First however, it is time to consider the BBC’s contribution.
In contrast with its more commercially-minded rival, the patrician BBC ignored the obvious potential of Horror seasons for some time. It screened one-off films fairly regularly in its Friday and Saturday-night slots (branded The Late Film and Midnight Movie respectively) but made no effort to specifically label these, or programme dedicated seasons. An August 1974 premiere of Torture Garden for example was billed in the Radio Times as “The Bank Holiday Horror Film”, but if (as implied) this was part of some ongoing tradition, it was the sole instance of its direct promotion.
By the mid-70s however, the growing popularity of ITV’s Appointment With Fear seasons must have become difficult to ignore, and the Corporation’s breakthrough year in finally responding was 1975. The channel almost exclusively utilised for this purpose was the self-consciously ‘alternative’ BBC2, so (in addition to chief film buyer Gunnar Rugheimer) the two men responsible must have been the consecutive BBC2 Controllers Aubrey Singer (1974-78), and his successor Brian Wenham (1978-82).
The shift began on Sunday 19th January 1975 with the start of a six-film Hammer season under the Midnight Movie banner. This was promoted with a short article on page 5 of that week’s Radio Times, and included classic titles like Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile. In the event however, it was merely a warm-up for what would follow.
In what was a then-revolutionary scheduling tactic, that summer’s Saturday-night Midnight Movie slot was given over to a series of five themed double bills. As already noted it was unusual to screen two films consecutively on TV under any circumstances, and part of the justification here must simply have been the lateness of the hour. The series, which began on Saturday 2nd August, was initially billed as “Midnight Movie Fantastic”, but by the third instalment had been re-titled “Fantastic Double Bill” to reinforce its USP. The ten films themselves were a mixed bag of older repeats, ranging in age from the 1919 Cabinet of Dr Caligari to Barbarella.
The formula was successful enough to become an annual tradition, in 1976 re-branded as “Masters of Terror” (“featuring some of the great stars of terror and suspense“), ten films again screened over five weeks in Aug-Sept. The pattern of showing an older (b&w) film first, followed by a more recent (usually colour) offering was reinforced, but all ten were still re-runs, with the newest title being Frankenstein Created Woman (which had opened the previous year’s Hammer season).
Perhaps the most significant series overall was 1977’s “Dracula, Frankenstein—and Friends!”—Halliwell’s ITV lease of the early Universal classics had expired, and Rugheimer had snapped them up. The scope of this season dramatically eclipsed what had gone before—22 films over 11 weeks (from 2nd July—10th Sept), with a major three-page promotional article “Perfectly Monstrous” by Angela Carter appearing in Radio Times to mark the opening salvo. The broad pattern was a Universal classic followed by a 60s Hammer or AIP film, and this—perhaps more than any series before or since—represented a rich crash-course in the genre’s historic highlights. Unfortunately it also marked the first appearance of occasional sporting-breaks separating the films—on 20th August for example (having just enjoyed Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman), viewers then had to sit through 45 interminable minutes of International Golf before moving on to The Raven. In later years we would be treated to equally stupefying Cricket highlights. (It is of course a particularly piquant irony that Lee and Cushing themselves would have much preferred the golf / cricket respectively. Price would probably have settled for Ready Steady Cook).
1978’s season was tagged “Monster Double Bill” (“with the accent on the bizarre and supernatural“), slightly scaled back at 16 films over eight weeks. This was a more mixed-bag, which for the first time included a couple of new premieres—George Romero’s The Crazies plus obscure Philippino-horror Superbeast—alongside vintage classics like White Zombie and King Kong. By now the series had become something of an institution, commanding impressive ratings. A mid-season article in the Daily Mail (taking its usual pop at BBC funding) opened: “Guess which continuous BBC2 programme has recently won the highest viewing figures? Ten to one you’ll be wrong. It is the Saturday late night movie horror double bill (between four and seven million viewers watch it). What is the cost to the BBC for these twin spine-chillers? At the most, no more than £10,000. By comparison, the budget for a specially-produced TV series or serial, running the average film time (90 minutes) would be approximately £100,000”.
1979 saw the return of the “Masters of Terror” tag for 14 films over seven weeks. The openers were again a mix of 30s and 40s classics (including the rarely-seen Doctor X), followed this time exclusively by Hammer gothics, including premieres for Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb and Satanic Rites of Dracula. To mark the screening of the latter in August, the Daily Mail tracked down a long-retired James Carreras for a brief (and undoubtedly reluctant) interview. Sir James tactfully avoided pointing out that son Michael had just led Hammer into its final bankrupt collapse only three months earlier.
The start of 1980’s “Horror Double Bill” on 28th June hit new heights of concerted promotion. For the first time, that week’s Radio Times marked the launch with a specially-commissioned Mark Thomas cover-painting (a pastiche ‘vintage’ poster for the opening split of Night of the Demon / The Ghoul, featuring artfully-added fold lines), plus a lavish five-page “Films That Go Bump in the Night” feature by Geoff Brown. It is worth quoting the latter’s introductory blurb in full, to get a flavour of the (typically) tongue-in-cheek approach deployed: “Viewers who might prefer The Bat to the sickening thud of willow against leather, or The Skull to the gory sight of televised miracles of modern medicine, will be burning the midnight oil on the next eight Saturdays. Here, Geoff Brown—who admits he’d rather hear a message From Beyond the Grave than the latest cricket scores—takes you gently by the hand to explore BBC2’s very own Chamber of Horrors”. Apart from such hard-sell, this season was also a breakthrough in terms of the number of premieres it contained: of the 19 films shown (the final week being a solo feature only) a record seven were first-screenings, including newer offerings from Hammer, Amicus and Tyburn (plus the quite-unforgettable Night of the Lepus).
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, so in 1981 “Horror Double Bill” returned with another 16 films. The gimmick this year was a distinctive package of Val Lewton / RKO thrillers, gifting a certain academic/critical respectability for the first time. The (now traditional) Radio Times launch-article—”Tasteful Terror, Elegant Unease”—reinforced this notion: “Cat people, body snatchers and zombies all feature among the horrors offered by Val Lewton’s 1940s RKO productions. Eight of them make up the first halves of BBC2’s new series of double bills, starting this week with I Walked With a Zombie. But, as Geoff Brown suggests, Lewton’s films were far more subtly atmospheric, far more literate, than their titles would indicate”. They were also occasionally far more boring. Amongst the contrastingly trashy premieres screened in support were Zoltan Hound of Dracula and Race With the Devil, which proved rather bigger hits with some youthful viewers than the longeurs of The Seventh Victim.
A further mini-treat was offered by BBC2 at the end of the year with “Monster Movie!”, five films screening on Thursday teatimes during Nov-Dec. King Kong and Beast From 20,000 Fathoms had previously seen service in the double-bills, but one oddball premiere was Legend of Boggy Creek (hesitantly billed in the Radio Times as a “horror-documentary”).
1982 offered no Horror series at all (double-bill or otherwise), presumably for the simple reason that the Corporation had finally run out of fresh material—the traditional Saturday-night summer slot was instead filled by a Hitchcock Season. Perhaps in belated compensation, BBC2 offered a fifteen-instalment “SF Film Festival” on Tuesday evenings between Jan-April 1983, including a couple of ex-double-bill titles (This Island Earth and It Came From Outer Space), along with Creature From the Black Lagoon, now considered innocuous enough to screen at 7.15pm.
Following the previous year’s gap, the final BBC2 “Horror Double Bill” (the films now pedantically labelled #1 and #2 in the listings for some reason) ran as usual from July-Sept 1983. But all 16 films featured were exclusively the Universal classics first shown back in 1977, appearing again six years later to (presumably) extract maximum scheduling-value before their leases expired.
The BBC continued to screen Saturday night Horror seasons after this, but only single-features (and chiefly repeats of the newer double-bill titles). “Late Night Horror” ran (on BBC1 for the first time) between Oct 1983—April 1984, followed by “The Horror Movie” (also BBC1) between Jan-March 1986. “Late Night Horror” then confusingly switched back to BBC2 in 1986 for the traditional July-Sept run, and there were also two dedicated BBC2 “Hammer Horror” seasons between Dec 1984—Jan 1985 and June-Aug 1987. Further seasons followed, but from this point predominantly featured new (1980s) titles of generally minimal interest.
As previously noted however, the appearance of Channel 4 in Nov 1982 marked a significant shift in ITV’s film-programming (and as a side-effect on the BBC’s own rival policies). Under Chief Exec Jeremy Isaacs (in charge until 1987), Channel 4 was launched with a clear remit to be as deliberately experimental and innovative as possible—to follow, in effect, the ‘alternative’ slant of BBC2. Two men were put in charge of its film-programming: Derek Hill (who handled the world cinema / independent side) and Leslie Halliwell (whose contrasting fierce devotion to Golden Age Hollywood was long-established). Right from the start, films were planned as a major part of C4’s output (about fifteen hours-worth were screened per week, of which roughly half were in peak-time) and Halliwell in particular was encouraged to fill the schedules with vintage material now considered too old / obscure to be suitable for the main ITV regions. In a pre-launch Dec 1981 interview he claimed he had already stockpiled about 1,000 titles, and by 1986 stated this figure had doubled “at an average royalty of £10,000 each”.
On 12th Nov 1982 (just ten days after launch) Channel Four started as it meant to go on with a series of six vintage Friday-night horrors tagged “Starring Boris Karloff” and including The Mask of Fu Manchu. Scores of others followed in various seasons over the next five years, including a specially-curated series branded “The Worst of Hollywood”, running from Oct-Dec 1983, and featuring ten cult sci-fi / fantasy epics including Plan Nine From Outer Space and Robot Monster. Possibly Halliwell’s favourite personal coup in this direction must have been the re-acquisition of the Universal package back from the BBC, which (combined with various other veteran rarities to make up a whopping total of 30 films) he ran as a series of Saturday night double-bills from Jan-April 1986 under the banner “Monster Horrors” (though, thanks to ill-judged scheduling, these clashed directly with BBC1’s concurrent “The Horror Movie” season noted above). Under new chief Michael Grade, Channel 4 continued to pursue its avant-garde policies well into the next decade—over June-July 1990 for example it screened a campy Friday night series of seven original Godzilla adventures under the heading “Creature Features”, boasting a wittily-edited opening title montage. Plus ca change…
- iv) The VCR
Of course, what any fan really wants is Ownership. During the era under consideration, the screening of films on TV was a one-off Event, with no way of preserving or repeating the experience. The sole mementoes a fan could sometimes acquire were a scuffed copy of the occasional paperback tie-in novelisation, or (even more rarely) a crackly vinyl LP of the soundtrack score.
One exception to this rule were Super-8 Home Movies, but the prices involved made Super-8 beyond the reach of the average fan. “Package” movies—as they were originally dubbed—began to be issued in the US by Castle Films (a postwar subsidiary of Universal) from 1949 onwards, and imported into Britain a few years later. These were ‘abridgements’ of classic Universal films: between 150-175 feet of silent black-and-white film on a 200-foot reel, lasting about 8-10 minutes and packaged in a slim 5¼ x 5¼ cardboard box with colourful pasted-on illustration. Vintage horror extracts were notably strong sellers (particularly once rival US outfit Ken Films appeared in the early 60s), and from about 1970 more sophisticated Sound projectors started appearing, with the films (increasingly now in colour) beginning to be issued with magnetic audio tracks. But these technical advances only kept prices high.
The three chief British companies supplying this rarified market were Walton (est.1948), Mountain (1960) and Derann (1964). One indication of the growing UK interest was a new full-page feature “On Screen” debuting in the March 1966 issue of Amateur Cine World, in which Denis Gifford pithily reviewed the latest releases. Super-8’s real heyday was the 1970s, with new 400-foot reels appearing alongside the old 200-footers. “Complete” features (actually edited down to about 72 minutes) could now be purchased on 4 x 400-foot reels, but the prices were eye-watering: a full-length colour/sound print of The Creeping Flesh from Derann would set you back £90 (£420 today), and the projectors were beyond even that—the cheapest Sound models started at about £150 (£700 now) and went up from there. By the time Super-8 was on its last legs in 1981, Mountain were reduced to taking out newspaper ads offering “The Complete Family Christmas Entertainment!“—a mixed selection of silent 200-foot reels listed by genre at “four for £20” (£70 now), with a bargain-basement Silent projector for the same price. It was the end of the line for a comparatively short-lived fad.
A more affordable alternative for the determined fan was audio-taping the TV-broadcast soundtracks. Philips had invented the Compact Cassette format in 1963, and by the end of the decade were marketing portable cassette-recorders (about the size of a small shoebox) with a crude plug-in microphone on a little plastic clip-stand. The present writer unexpectedly received a cheap second-hand model for Xmas 1975 (an ultra-basic Realistic CTR-26, with just five chunky buttons plus a slider-knob for the volume), and for several years was rather at a loss what to do with it, until the brainwave of taping soundtracks straight off the television occurred in summer 1979. Blank cassettes were by this point pocket-money cheap (about 99p for a Woolworths own-brand C90), and over the next five years—beginning with Curse of Frankenstein—an impressive collection of c.100 muffled and hissy soundtracks was assembled. The only drawbacks were (a) inadvertently falling asleep and not turning the tape over after 45 minutes, and (b) running the risk of an occasional background parental commentary (That’s ridiculous, you’d never do that in real life, look she’s going to… she’s going to… oh Gawd she’s never going to… don’t… don’t… DON’T GO IN THE CELLAR! Oh too late, she has).
If an extra-special all-time favourite was preserved for posterity in this fashion, there was the further option of immortalising it by laboriously transcribing the dialogue as a bespoke amateur novelisation. This had to be done quite quickly though, or memory would fade and the non-dialogue connecting action become only hazily recalled—filling these mysterious gaps could be quite a challenge for the aspiring author. This must all seem rather whimsical, but a quick glance at internet discussion-boards indicates just how widespread audio-taping actually was before a better alternative became available—most fans (including the present writer) naively imagined they were the only person who’d ever thought of doing it. By the early 80s however, a thrilling new development had arrived that instantly rendered hissy audio soundtracks redundant (and brutally crushed the hapless Super-8 market overnight into the bargain). The only problem was—at least initially—it made Super-8 look cheap.
The story of the arrival of Home Video in Britain has already been covered ad infinitum elsewhere, so a brief summary should suffice here. Several competing formats were in development by the mid-70s, but the Japan Victor Company’s ‘Vertical Helical Scan’ (VHS) system quickly emerged as the market leader following its Tokyo launch in 1976. Initially (like its rivals) VHS only offered one-hour cassettes, but JVC cannily focussed on addressing this drawback, introducing two-hour tapes in July 1977, then three-hour at the end of the year. Thus prepared, on 23rd February 1978 they launched their original machine—the JVC HR 3300—in the UK with a press reception at London’s Churchill Hotel, unveiling a sharp ad-campaign headlined “If you missed it on BBC or ITV—see it on JVC” which artfully plugged the new “JVC Video Home System—the first three-hour home TV recorder“. What the ads deliberately avoided mentioning was the price-tag. At launch, the 3300 retailed for £799 (about £4,200 in today’s terms) while the breakthrough three-hour tapes were a whopping £15 each (nearly £80).
With sums like these involved, an inevitable rental boom ensued which recalled the earlier days of TV hire. The present writer’s first family VCR arrived (courtesy of Granada TV Rental in Walsall’s Old Square) in Dec 1982, prompted by the enticing launch of the firm’s Granada Video Club—Mad Max for just £2.95 per night! By this stage blank three-hour tapes had dropped to a more manageable £8 or so (about £25 today), and gradually building up a library of favourite off-air films was feasible. Pre-recorded tapes in contrast remained sky-high for some time, with the earliest examples in 1980 selling at a flat £40 each (about £150 now), again leading to a lively (ie sleazy and chaotic) rental scene. For several years the best way to pick up affordable pre-recorded titles was through independent local Video Shops, who would regularly sell-off older ex-rental stock for a fiver or so a time. The later ‘sell-through revolution’ did not begin until June 1985 with the launch of Woolworth’s “The Video Collection” label—promoted as “a video for the price of a blank tape” the range retailed for a bargain £5.99 each and proved an unprecedented success, rapidly changing the shape of the entire collectors’ market.
The growth of the video market in Britain over the 1980s was nothing short of explosive, far outstripping its early performance in the US. By 1980 a modest 400,000 VCRs had been sold or rented in the UK, with only 2% of homes boasting one. By 1982 this figure had leapt to 3.2 million machines in 17% of homes, by 1985 it was 8.4m in 40%, and by 1990 14.5m in 70%. 1990 was also the year that sell-through topped rental for the first time, with more people buying films outright than hiring them from Blockbuster and co. In barely a decade the concept of owning a collection of your favourite movies, on hand to watch whenever you felt like it, had gone from being an impossible daydream to a routine everyday reality. But was something perhaps lost in the process?
- v) The Legacy
No, not the dreary 1978 satanic-conspiracy thriller scripted by Jimmy Sangster on an off-day. The idea that the key transition outlined above had a concrete, definable impact on the fans who grew up through it.
At this point it becomes ever more difficult (perhaps impossible) to keep the analysis objective. But as Carol Hanisch once wrote, The Personal Is Political, and if it’s good enough for second-wave feminism, it’s good enough for a load of crappy old horror films. In pursuing this notion we shall focus on two central themes: the idea of Shared Experience, and the idea of Value—or, as more primitive societies (such as those based in the West Midlands) might express it, the idea of Magic.
Writing in the postscript to his 1979 Film Guide, our old pal Leslie Halliwell glumly opined “…television is a private enjoyment, and one inevitably misses the sense of comradeship, of sharing a pleasure, that the cinema used to fulfil. Who having experienced [it] can forget the feeling of a full house being pleasurably chilled by The Cat and the Canary…?” Whilst one can appreciate the point Halliwell is making here, he clearly didn’t spend much of 1979 hanging around Walsall’s school playgrounds, particularly during the Feb-April screening of ATV’s “Christopher Lee—Prince of Menace” season. The comradeship was overwhelming. “And worrabout that bit where he fell and bashed his head on the ice, and the blood, like, trickled down into Draclea’s mouth? That was dead scary. And worrabout that bit where he pulled the stake out of hisself? That was DISGUSTIN. And worrabout the bit where….”
And this, remember, is the period when the summer double-bills were pulling record BBC2 audiences of between four to seven million viewers EVERY WEEK, exponentially more than the films featured would have achieved on their original theatrical runs. It is doubtful whether four to seven dozen patrons caught Superbeast during its miniscule Dec 1972 fleapit run (and most of them probably demanded their money back). Six years later it was being viewed simultaneously by up to 12% of the UK population, and enthusiastically (if incoherently) discussed the following morning. A private enjoyment?
As the fans grew older, the Monday-morning analyses became more self-consciously sophisticated. By 1981 the present writer (having read everything that Messrs Gifford and Frank could throw at him) considered himself a bit of a Connoisseur, and thus morally obliged to explain to anyone who would listen that Val Lewton was a genius. The expression of incredulous disbelief on one long-suffering classmate’s face as he was loftily assured The Seventh Victim was indeed a much better film than Race With The Devil has burned itself painfully into memory. As well it might. Are there any motorbikes in The Seventh Victim? Does it feature Lara Parker in a bikini? Are there any other questions?
Such facetiousness aside, there is an important point to be made here about Community and Shared Experience. Practically EVERYONE watched these films at the time, and fans knew if they wanted to talk about them later, most friends and relatives would readily be able to contribute (even if only to take the piss). The standard chestnut of course relates to the vast audiences achieved by the classic Morecambe and Wise Xmas Specials (their 1977 show pulled in 27m viewers), and how families would settle down to watch these together post-turkey, knowing that much of the rest of the country was similarly laughing along at Eric’s guileless baiting of Andy Preview. The same point (to an obviously lesser extent) can also be made for the period’s big Horror seasons, but the phenomenon simply no longer exists today, when that same family a generation on will now be watching three or four different things on personal iPads / laptops etc, or—at best—arguing over the endless choice offered by 100+ terrestrial Freeview channels.
So, each individual film-viewing now really IS an individual experience, and it all started back in February 1978 with the launch of the UK’s first mass-market VCR. Which leads us on to our second theme: What gives a film Value in the first place? Where does the Magic (if any) come from?
Halliwell’s opinion was that the magic (at least partly) lay in the shared experience itself, but we have already suggested this is an oversimplification. The TRUE value arguably resides in a related (but now equally long-lost) concept—specifically, the sense of Occasion. If something is readily available all the time, how can it ever be felt to be particularly special? The blanket restricted-access of the era is precisely what defined it, and gave the films concerned their inherent sense of excitement. You COULDN”T see these things every day in the 70s. You were lucky if you got to see them once every three years.
Scheduling strategies were random and unpredictable, dependent upon the terms of the original lease. It’s true that when a popular title was acquired it was occasionally flogged to death. Carry On Screaming was bought by the BBC in early 1973, and thereafter screened incessantly: Aug ’73, Oct ’74, Nov ’75, June ’77, Sept 1979 and Oct ’81. (The Bonfire Night 1975 showing is important as a jointly-recalled formative experience for three-quarters of The League of Gentlemen, long before they ever met). Other, more obscure offerings were not so lucky and could disappear for years at a time, suddenly popping up unexpectedly for a late-night screening then vanishing again. You either caught them or you didn’t. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many films became semi-legendary—even mystical—existing (if at all) in hazy memory only, reinforced by the grainy stills reproduced in endlessly pored-over Monster Magazines.
Furthermore, if you were somehow forced to miss a showing, the sense of frustration was overwhelming. In August 1980 a new series of the ATV Thursday Picture Show re-screened Ebirah Terror of the Deep, last seen in April 1977. The present writer was on holiday in a North Wales caravan at the time, and reduced to forlornly buying a copy of the local TV Times in order to cut out the two-inch-square Regional Variations listing for his scrapbook. He was assured (with increasing impatience) it would be on again. It next reappeared ten years later, when Channel 4 finally included it as the closing instalment of their Creature Features season in July 1990. Some readers (at least those paying attention) must be thinking “Yeah, so what? Surely it was out on video by then anyway?” Sadly for lovers of giant lobsters everywhere, the answer is no. Ebirah did not make its UK prerecorded debut (courtesy of Polygram) until Sept 1992.
Why on earth does any of this matter? Because it was precisely this very scarceness, this obscurity, this sense of Occasion, that made these films so special for a generation of older fans in a way that must seem almost incomprehensible to today’s click-on-demand audiences. It has driven us to write multiple labour-of-love history books simply to get the resulting obsessions out of our systems. And these books, however slapdash, document a history that would otherwise be lost. What teenager today would want to tramp around the countryside trying to identify overgrown Hammer film locations? Or interview some retirement-home SPFX pioneer about the years he spent in his garage making model dinosaurs lumber about on camera?
Today’s fans will have their own fascinations, and in time come to write their own books. But for those of us who nervously kept the Appointment with Fear or bravely accepted the Invitation to Terror, the memories surely burn brightest. What, you’re not researching them old Saturday night double-bills? Christ, I used to watch them, they were bloody awful. Do you remember that one about the giant rabbits….?
Sim Branaghan August-September 2017
With special acknowledgement to:
Hall, Sheldon “Feature Films on British Television in the 1970s” (2014) SHU seminar online at:
Kinsey, Wayne “Appointment With Fear” in McNaughton, Eric (ed) ’70s Monster Memories’ (Buzzy Krotik 2016)