TV REVIEW: “A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss: ep #2”, BBC4, Mondays @9pm

Ask any horror fan (and many non-horror fans, too, if it comes to that) to sum up the English conception of the genre and it’s a certainty that the name Hammer will feature heavily in any answer. In fact, if truth be told, the very name has become soaked in the Kensington Gore so beloved of the studio; Hammer and horror have achieved a species of verbal symbiosis, each word seemingly being dependent on the other. You can’t think of horror without thinking Hammer, and you most certainly can’t think of Hammer without thinking horror. Hammer is, in fact, synonymous with horror.

After last week’s first episode of Mark Gatiss’s very personal, but never less than fascinating, take on the History of Horror(currently being broadcast on BBC4), the pendulum now swings from Hollywood back to the very birthplace of the horror genre itself: Britain. If Hollywood was about lavish sets and big drama, British horror was on a much smaller and, dare I say it, more intimate scale. As Gatiss pointed out, money was always tight at Hammer – but rather than that being a weakness, the producers, scriptwriters, directors and technicians turned it to their advantage. As a consequence, Hammer produced some memorable films.

Mark Gatiss did an excellent job of parlaying the essential ‘Englishness’ of these productions, starting with the very title of the episode itself – Home Counties Horror. Despite the copiously liberal amounts of Kensington Gore used in their films, there is still a certain charm and gentility evident in them – epitomised best, perhaps, by the two icons of British horror cinema, Peter Cushing OBE and Sir Christopher Lee. In much the same way that the early Universal (therefore American) horror genre film came to be associated with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (ironically both non-Americans), Cushing and Lee came to represent not only horror but Hammer itself. If nothing else, Cushing was the quintessential Englishman, with Lee not very far behind.

However, one aspect of the programme that Gatiss is most definitely to be congratulated upon is the fact that he gave a serious analysis of the output of Hammer – the studio’s productions (and the studio by association) are often seen as being camp and therefore lowbrow. It’s easy to forget in these less conservative and censorious times that many of the things we take for granted in our genre films, like gore and nudity, held a real shock value back then. In this regard, Hammer was a pioneer, pushing the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable and thereby chipping away at what would be seen as ludicrous taboos now. Likewise, it’s too easy for us, as members of the sophisticated present-day audience, to deride those early films, thinking of them as more like comedies than serious movies intent on scaring people, simply because we have no context in which to frame them. Gatiss’s analysis did much to do just that and restore them to their rightful place, to set them against the standards of the day and also to emphasise their essentially transgressive nature.

(This can especially be applied to Piers Haggard’s 1971 film Blood on Satan’s Claw, a film that I have yet to see. This was termed ‘folk’ horror – using the word folk almost as a pejorative, decrying the pagan and immoral superstitions of the rural and pastoral past, thereby painting our ‘ignorant’ forebears in an even darker and more primitive light. The world was moving forward at the beginning of the 70s, in terms of both society and technology, and the message seemed to be that the past was unenlightened and brutal, and should rightfully be left behind where it can’t harm us.)

Once more, Gatiss brought on some fascinating guests, including producer Anthony Hinds, scriptwriter and sometime director Jimmy Sangster, and the late director, Roy Ward Baker. Honours for the best guest of the night would have to go to Barbara Steele, however, the Scream Queen herself, star of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and still quite the looker even now. I would have liked to have heard a few words from Christopher Lee himself, considering he’s the only one left of the Cushing/Lee double act, but I suspect he was off filming somewhere and was unavailable to be interviewed. What we did get however (and which more than made up for it), was some delightful archive footage of Cushing being interviewed, including one alongside that other icon, Vincent Price.

Gatiss also touched upon a few other aspects of the story of British horror cinema, most notably the output of Amicus Films, a late rival of Hammer’s. This particular studio specialised in portmanteau films – shorter films connected by bridging segments. They were never wholly as successful as Hammer, and appear to be more the domain of the dedicated fan these days. Having said that, they did contribute in their way to the rich, gore-spattered tapestry that constitutes the history of horror on this side of the Atlantic. Gatiss also alluded to the influence Hammer had on other directors, including Roger Corman and his fantastic Poe cycle of films (and who was also one of the delightful guests) plus the aforementioned Italian Mario Bava.

Once again, what seeped through most of all from this programme was Gatiss’s deep love of, and appreciation for, horror. No better illustration of this was provided by the segment where Mark recounted an incident in his childhood of being banned from watching or reading anything to do with horror – simultaneously reverentially holding a vintage copy of The House of Hammer magazine (issue #3, I believe it was). His eyes lit up at the very sight of the mag and at the reminiscence itself. This is a man who isn’t afraid to acknowledge his roots, or his debt to the genre,  and his delight in being able to share that enthusiasm with an audience is completely unalloyed. That one segment probably sums up the tenor of the whole series for me.

I’m enjoying this short history immensely and that is also my one biggest complaint about it – three programmes isn’t enough to explore the whole panoply that the horror genre offers to people who take the trouble to delve into it. To paraphrase the words of that other quintessential British character, Oliver (Oliver Twist):

“Please sir, can I have some more?”


4 Responses to “TV REVIEW: “A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss: ep #2”, BBC4, Mondays @9pm”

  1. Nice blog, Simon. But Cushing was given an OBE, I don’t think he was ever made a “Sir”. Outrageous oversight, though, that he wasn’t. I particularly liked Gattiss’s tribute to him – arguably the greatest actor in the horror pantheon – in a scant few minutes Gattiss conveyed PC’s professional seriousness, yet also the qualities that have made all his co-stars shower him with praise as a delightful person. RIP to an undervalued actor and great fellow of cinema.

    • I reckon, had Peter lived a bit longer, he might well have been knighted… like you say, an outrageous oversight.

      Fact time: I have a friend who knew womeone who worked in the very same tea shop frequented by Peter – not only that, she used to serve him his tea…. what a memory that would be…

  2. Great post! Wish we were getting this in the States. This month on our cable channel Turner Classic Movies, the Friday night schedule is made up of Hammer Horror, with many of the films being shown for the first time on the channel–which is usually the home of Hollywood’s Golden Age. They always have a well-done introduction to the movies too. Hopefully lots of folks are getting their horror education this Halloween…

  3. Loved PC’s answer in the old interview about being “typecast” – it didn’t worry him; he got to do a job he loved, and they kept paying him to do it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: