TV Cream

TV: T is for...

Thriller

A SUPERLATIVE anthology of hour-long suspenseful playlets about well-tailored middle class types methodically doing each other in, THRILLER was a textbook example of straightforward, unpretentious telly drama doing its job to perfection. Mastermind BRIAN CLEMENS conceived and wrote most of the six series: forty three stories of suspense and horror, sometimes with supernatural overtones, often with an American guest star on the books for export purposes, always with plenty of plot twists.

The pre-title sequences were reassuringly formulaic, setting the tone for each week’s dose of macabre happenings in, more often than not, a superficially cosy remote provincial setting.. A charming cottage was seen being cased by a sinister type in a Gabardine coat, or maybe a flashy TR7 would pull into the driveway of a well-appointed country house, arousing the suspicions of the gardener. Something was clearly afoot. Then came the credits, a blood-tinged fish-eye lens title sequence with jarring musical chords, signalling ‘suspense’ in no uncertain terms. Corny episode titles belied the finely-tooled drama they would herald. ‘The Eyes Have It’ was a case in point: a daft pun introducing a largely silent, almost unbearably suspenseful tale of blind medical students (including DENNIS WATERMAN and SINEAD CUSACK) thwarting PETER VAUGHAN’s gang of taciturn terrorists. Elsewhere, the likes of ‘Murder in Mind’ and ‘K is for Killing’ served up exactly what they promised, and needless to say, if Clemens could bodge up a title by working the word ‘scream’ into a well-known expression, he did.

Primark Hitchcock it might have been, but the suspense was well-made for all that. Essentially, the series toyed with clichés. Young married couple freshly moved into mysterious rural location, stranger turning up who may not be all he seems, unidentified killer on the loose etc. It was the masterly variations and wrong-footings wrought from these familiar scenarios that made the programmes riveting, even when acting and production values started to exhibit the tell-tale signs of mid-series sag. Quite often, however, there were great performances, both from name actors (witness DIANA DORS’s sinister country nurse, ‘taking care’ of a bed-ridden American diplomat’s daughter in ‘Nurse Will Make It Better’) and those yet to find fame, particularly one that stops everyone in their tracks, HELEN MIRREN as the potential victim (or – ahem – is she?) of serial wife-knobbler MICHAEL JAYSTON in ‘A Coffin for the Bride’. DINSDALE LANDEN’s turn as suave private eye Matthew Earp was so popular he became the series’ only recurring character, when he was brought back for a second episode. When everything came together, as with the endless double-crosses and revelations and a brilliant cast led by PETER BOWLES in ‘The Double Kill’, you couldn’t ask for a better way to pass an hour of prime time.

This was, as you might expect, a very early ’70s kind of intrigue. Try and play a postmodern drinking game, quaffing along with the hero, or taking a sip every time a detective is seen entering a living room refracted in a crystal decanter, or a white shag-pile carpet is stained crimson with blood, or an anonymous black-gloved hand picks up a telephone receiver and slowly dials a very long number, or a blonde American in a trouser suit merrily announces that she’s ‘new in town’ and you’ll be under the glass coffee table before the first victim. And, quite frankly, serves you right. The show signalled its era in other ways: ‘If It’s a Man, Hang Up’ had Clemens’ stock glamorous soubrette-in-peril (more often than not called ‘Suzy’, the significance of which remains a mystery) menaced by an unknown stalker leaving threatening messages on a big, clunky old telephone answering machine. One of the main things mitigating against any modern revival of the programme is the number of plots that revolve around young women not being able to get to a phone box in time, or killers cutting the phone lines to a remote country cottage. In that sense, as well as that of the many swish glass-‘n’-chrome bachelor pads dreamt up by the set designers, this is period drama.

They weren’t wall-to-wall classics. Each of the six seasons served up a couple of makeweights and duffers. (As a rule, seasons three and four were the closest to perfection, while five and six became increasingly silly.) ‘File It Under Fear’ was a library-oriented serial kill-in which had JOHN LE MESURIER, JAN FRANCIS and MAUREEN LIPMAN to play with among others, but still fumbled its chance, while mystical entry ‘Someone at the Top of the Stairs’ was fantastic for forty minutes, then ran smack into one of those tediously long-winded explanatory denouements that plague so much bad telefantasy, even if the masterly DAVID DE KEYSER was delivering it (with his fingers placed on the tip of his chin just so). At the very bottom of the pile, ‘Murder Motel’s daffy PSYCHO homage, despite the appropriately-cast RALPH BATES, stank the place out.

Even in otherwise grand entries, Clemens’ unabashed disregard for research (particularly his habit of just sort of guessing what the police might decide to do) got the goat of the more pernickety viewer, along with the inevitable ‘yes, but what about..?’s and ‘hang on, why didn’t she just..?’s that always plague the best laid plots of Agathas and Roalds. Oh, and the dialogue, with the possible exception of one or two Matthew Earp bon mots, never rose, or even aimed above speakable. But even when it was unspeakable, even when the plots were riddled with inconsistencies, and even when the entire set-up seemed like a dead goose from the off (“there’s this professor of Pavlovian psychology, right, and he’s trained some murderous psychos as his servants, and he invites some young students to dinner…”) the twists, turns and sheer gusto of the whole thing kept your attention front and centre, niggling doubts only edging their way in as the end credits wound to a close. Which, Clemens would argue, was his job done.

One thing that initially puts off the modern viewer is Thriller’s directorial style, which, if it could be said to exist at all was very much the old school approach: four days in the studio, one day on location, bash it out, onto the next one. What would nowadays be considered glacial pacing (the long, deliberate tracking shot across an empty room accompanied by sinister oboe cadence was something of a motif, for instance) was integral to the atmosphere. Rather than cut rapidly from shot to shot, the direction took its time, almost taunting the viewer with its creeping progress. When all the other elements were working, a vivid sense of foreboding was the result. Lew Grade’s ITC hired a roster of big names and gave the scripts relatively lavish treatment, but, being mainly studio-bound, with a couple of sets (all of them meticulously dressed, with nary a wobbling column in sight) and a minimal amount of location filming, they look visually primitive these days. However, this simplicity had the virtue of putting the emphasis firmly on script and action, in lieu of fancy camera angles. In fact, the technical limitations had an atmosphere all of their own: the videotaped interiors were claustrophobic and tense, while the grainy, overcast countryside film inserts looked like they could be hiding untold menaces.

Various ITV series followed in kind – the supernatural ARMCHAIR THRILLER and HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR, and the twist-happy TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED, which was the one that ran off with all the nostalgia value, more through being repeated a lot during ITV strikes than anything else – but for sheer no-nonsense cliffhanging effect, nothing beats the original.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. jumpingbeanbag

    June 21, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    Looking out for the placating American refs of a visiting student, traveller or a lodger planted in pretty much every episode, becomes part of the fun and is a minor quibble all considered.
    Stands the test of time. Some plots could be used now, with only a tiny bit of modern twisty, turning tweaking needed to pass the muster on ITV primtime. Really well crafted series for the most part and great to stick on after a few bevs on a night in.

  2. Enoch Sneed

    June 22, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    I remember these very well, gripping the arms of my chair on Saturday nights when I was about 12. The Diana Dors episode was a classic. Another had Michael Jayston as Nyree Dawn Porter’s creepy butler slowly starving her to death. I have often been tempted to buy the DVD’s but I think I’d rather remember them through a haze of nostalgia.

    • TV Cream

      June 22, 2010 at 4:44 pm

      Funnily enough Enoch, we’d say Thriller counts as the only one of these ‘chilling’ anthologies that can still be enjoyed for what it is today. It’s the stuff that came after it, particularly Tales of the Unexpected, that’s perhaps best left in the nostalgic haze.

  3. Five-Centres

    June 25, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    I’m sure Donna Mills shared the honour of being one of only two guest stars who appeared more than once?

  4. Jack Hardesty

    June 27, 2010 at 11:08 am

    Both Gary Collins and Bradford Dillman turned up a couple of times too, and they were billed as guest stars, even though they’re not in Donna’s league. And didn’t Pamela Franklin appear in quite a few as the regulation screaming victim?

  5. Cindylover1969

    June 27, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    Most of them were pretty weak, really, but when they were on target (like “I’m The Girl He Wants To Kill” with Robert Lang as the nameless psycho and Julie Sommars as the title role) they really worked.

    Interestingly, they didn’t always have the American as the hero/heroine – there was one with Patrick O’Neal as a fellow who went around charming women and killing them; in the end he got nabbed when… hang on, that might be a spoiler. Let’s just say he got nabbed and the line “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do” comes into play.

  6. Graham Kibble-White

    June 28, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    FC – I think Robert Powell also returned. Possibly even playing the same character. Or am I getting this hopelessly confused. I could Google, I guess. But where’s the fun in that?

  7. dgm

    February 27, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    “we’d say Thriller counts as the only one of these ‘chilling’ anthologies that can still be enjoyed for what it is today”

    I find this view baffling. Imo, Thriller is the worst written, most implausible tv series ever made.

    • George White

      January 7, 2018 at 3:45 pm

      I admire Clemens, hero-worship him, but he’s not a great writer. I admire his work ethic, his ability, but most of his ideas are stupid when they should be daft, overstepping that very fine line between stupidity and daftness. See also Robert Bloch and Ray Bradbury.

  8. George White

    January 2, 2018 at 1:57 pm

    Yes, some of them are fun, but a lot are hopelessly padded, and that’s without the US tagalong prologues.

    Thriller – A Killer in Every Corner (1975) – Don Henderson as a mad butcher cutting a dummy of Patrick Magee, who then appears as his mad scientist controller. Max Wall as another killer, he and Henderson butlers. Nonsensical but somewhat entertaining.

    Thriller – I’m The Girl He Wants To Kill – Begins with girls riding an open-top convertible holding a big load of balloons – then one is left off and stalked by psycho Robert Lang. American guest star is Julie Sommars, star of Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. Ken Jones plays a Ken Jones-y security guard of a complex run by Anthony Steel. Features some “exciting” scenes of Sommars being chased about. Her love interest is top-billed Tony Selby.

    Thriller – Nurse Will Make It Better (1975) – Proto-Omen with quite a low-billed Patrick Troughton in a virtual cameo playing Brennan. Rich American Cec Linder’s eldest daughter is paralysed, much to shock of other daughters Andrea “Airport ’79” Marcovicci and underage coke-drinking fun-seeker Tiffany Kinney (who is bizarrely in The Exorcist II – The Heretic), Diana Dors’ evil Satanic nurse appears to turn her patient into a Satanic temptress. Dors doing the same schtick she does in Hammer House of Horror. Features a lot of wind machine magic and a pillow wearing a coat for Dors’ immortal torso being strewn with bullets. The hero role is split between Michael Culver and Ed Bishop. A lot of the other Thrillers I’ve seen are dull and soapy – like the Edd Byrnes and Ingrid Pitt one in a casino. Then, Dors appears in red-tinted closeup with deep voice and revealed to be collecting souls. Troughton is a Christian brother who has been fighting “Him” (Dors being the Devil). Marcovicci then opens Dors’ treasure chest full of demon wind, and rescues everyone from Dors.

    Thriller best described as giallo Crossroads.

  9. George White

    January 2, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    Something at the Top of the Stairs has a fun fruity turn from David De Keyser, but it’s bobbins.

    The Eyes Have It is fun, but again padded. A young Alun Armstrong, Leslie Schofield too.

  10. George White

    January 3, 2018 at 2:47 pm

    Coffin for the Bride is overlong, but someone needs to cast Mirren more as awful Northern matriarchs. And also Josephine Tewson!
    Kiss Me and Die is fun. I think they should have gone more OTT horror/fantasy, more like Dan Curtis’ stuff. The Poe-themed costume party comes too late, George Chakiris dressed as Davy Crockett,too much romance between Agutter and Chakiris, Anton Diffring a solid villain, Russell Hunter fun as a West Country “old fashioned rat”-fancier.
    Death to Sister Mary – Jennie Linden in a fake convent set, revealed to be a sub-Crossroads soap. Which doesn’t really work, as Thriller has the same production values.
    The Next Victim – Carroll Baker gets stalked by nutter Ronald Lacey, or does she?

    Nice to see the likes of Derek Francis, Robert Beatty and TP McKenna first billed while the supposed US starlet or in some cases ageing once-a-name (Carroll Baker, usually) is given a guest billing. And nice to see credited in the titles, Donald Gee, Garrick Hagon, Russell Hunter, etc.

  11. Applemask

    September 27, 2019 at 9:30 pm

    Brian Clemens’ mother was named Suzanna. If that’s any clue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

"Brian's Binatone is great for his cassettes!"

To Top