Sunday 12 March 2023

Twenty high points of horror in British TV

Well, I’m still in a holding pattern at present with regard to blogposts. There are several announcements I want to make, but simply can’t. So, perhaps you can indulge me and we’ll just have a fun post this week. 

Today therefore, purely for a laugh, I thought I’d give you My TOP 20 SCARIEST BRITISH TV HORROR MOMENTS.

Note that I said ‘TV’, not cinema. However, we’ll also be venturing into the world of literary horror today, because in addition to that, I’ll be reviewing THE DEVIL TAKES YOU HOME by Gabino Iglesias, a fascinating and terrifying crime novel, which ranges much further into the darkness than almost any other thriller I’ve read to date.

If you’re only here for the Iglesias review, that’s no problem. Just do the usual thing. Scoot down to the bottom end of today’s post, to the Thrillers, Chillers section, and you’ll find it there.

But, before we crack on with Brit TV’s best ever terror, check this out.

Why 1066?

I’m not going to spend too much time on this, because the podcast does most of the talking, but my new novel, a historical adventure called USURPER, is out in just over one month’s time. There’ll probably be quite a bit of promotional stuff appearing on this over the next few months, and last week I was pleased to get the ball rolling by being interviewed by Dick Newman for the Australian-based podcast, ENGLISH HISTORY, FACT AND FICTION, a chat in which we focussed on that most apocalyptic year in the history of England, why I chose it and how I sought to milk the most darkness and drama out of it that I possibly could. And, well, here it is now. Those interested, please feel free to check it out. The interview kicks in at around 45.


A quick update on the Heck series, primarily because people keep tweeting me and asking, which I massively appreciate, by the way (I love it that the books made such an impact). All I can do is reiterate that the series is not finished. Two new Heck novels have been written, the first one picking up exactly where the last one left off, and I am as eager as anyone else to see them on the shelves. But I am NOT in full control of publishing schedules. There are other people involved in the process, and it’s always a matter of all our interests falling into line. But I ASSURE those of you to whom this matters, that the series is NOT done, and at some point soon, the next Heck novel will be published.

And now …


(As strongly influenced by HORRIFIED MAGAZINE 

It seems bizarre in this day and age, when many of our network broadcasters seem convinced that fly-on-the-wall docu-soaps are vastly more captivating for British TV audiences than original drama or comedy, but television in the UK was once a seedbed of genuinely frightening horror.

The golden era of this was probably the 1970s and 1980s, when a plethora of horror anthology shows, aimed both at adults and younger viewers, darkened our screens. But you could go way further back than that, with Nigel Kneale’s ground-breaking Quatermass series (pictured at the top), which ran throughout the 1950s, and Dr Who of course, which kicked off in 1963, a so-called children’s TV show that would go on to scare the pants of viewers of all ages on umpteen occasions. 

Also in the ’60s, and perhaps in terms of harder core horror, we had Mystery and Imagination (1966-1970), Late Night Horror (1968) and Journey to the Unknown (1968/69), not all of which, sadly, remain intact in the television archive.

As I say, it was really the 1970s when British TV genuinely picked up the horror torch and ran with it. The tone was set, weirdly enough, with a whole range of public information films, many of them again aimed at children, warning the UK populace about the dangers of everyday life. No one, but no one, forgets Lonely Water (1973), in which horror veteran Donald Pleasence played a menacing hooded figure who haunted the banks of isolated rivers, canals and millponds, just waiting to drown unwary youngsters. 

But that was only the start of it. Even British TV’s exponents of higher culture got in on the act, Play for Today hitting the nation with Robin Redbreast in 1970 and Penda’s Fen in 1974.

In terms of actual horror shows, the ’70s and ‘80s produced some bona fide classics, Doom Watch, Dead of Night, Thriller, Ghost Story for Christmas, Beasts, Shadows, Supernatural, Hammer House of Horror, Tales of the Unexpected, Shades of Darkness, among many others.

Shows like these became thinner on the ground in later decades, but there are still one or two highlights post-1989 that are worth mentioning. Stephen Gallagher’s Chimera, a chilling adaptation of his own highly intelligent 1982 sci-fi/horror novel, hit our screens in 1992, while Ghosts in 1995 successfully revived the spirit of those earlier supernatural portmanteau dramas.

But enough of all this. You didn’t come here today to get a TV history lesson. If you want one of those, you can easily learn more on the subject from far more scholarly websites than this. As I’ve already mentioned, HORRIFIED MAGAZINE is a great place to start, and SCARRED FOR LIFE vols 1 and 2 would help as well. But perhaps if you’re keen to zero in on a few high points, this list below will be of interest.

As I say, it’s my personal Top 20 Scariest Moments in British TV Horror. I’m sure there’ll be many arguments about absentees. No Warning to the Curious? No Robin Redbreast? No reference at all to the legendary younger viewers’ series, Children of the Stones? Surely that one’s worthy of a mention?

Well … yes, they all are. But there is insufficient time and room here for an encyclopaedic account. So, you’ll just have to make do with the really good moments I remember best, though by all means feel free to point out any particularly shocking absences in the Comments section. The more the merrier.

Anyway, let’s get on with it …

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror was much given over to dystopian futures, but this one hits us with a sneaky double-bluff, its bedraggled heroine staggering through a protracted but corny succession of sci-fi/horror twists and turns, only for it to turn out that she’s the main actor in a popular but horrific game-show. A slick comment on our modern habit of filming torture rather than trying to stop it.

2. BABY – BEASTS (1976)

Nigel Kneale’s first appearance on this list but far from his last. Perhaps it seems a little talkie by modern standards, but not a word is really wasted as the doomed young couple at the heart of it eagerly renovate their olde worlde country cottage, only to find something very nasty embedded in the wall. At this stage, of course, they don’t know the real meaning of ‘nasty’, but they soon will.


An amazingly atmospheric adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story masterclass. The directing, the acting, the writing (of course Mr Kneale again!), everything is pitch-perfect. The location is dreariness personified, and yet possesses an atmosphere of strangeness and dread that owes nothing to cinematic trickery. It also contains one of the scariest spectres in TV history.


Something of an arthouse effort for the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas slot, perhaps because it was part of the Omnibus series. It amounts to a very faithful recreation of one of Sheridan Le Fanu’s most frightening short stories. Beautifully dressed, impressively underplayed, directed as though it’s actually a succession of Flemish School paintings, and boasting a truly terrifying denouement.


Another of Black Mirror’s dystopian parables, as penned by Charlie Brooker, this time following the fortunes of a military unit, and one soldier in particular, as they track down and wipe out nests of so-called ‘roaches’, savage humanoid insurgents who are ruining the land. The real horror, of course, is the mind control by which the troopers are persuaded to view these innocent intruders as a threat.


Cosy crime meets full-on horror in a TV series that simply refused to pull its punches when it came to scaring its audience. Antonia Fraser wrote the original novel as part of her Jemima Shore series, in which there was much to do with big inheritances, country houses and murder, but this one is worth including simply for episode 3 and the bone-chilling appearance of the infamous Black Nun.


One of the earliest episodes of Thriller, number three in the first series, and one that would cut deeply with anyone who’s ever stayed in a low-rent bedsit. The rickety stairs, the dingy passages, the strange sounds from the other rooms, the increasingly weird fellow occupants, and the occasional moments of 1970s sleaze all place this one firmly in Pan Book of Horror Stories country.


One of the most memorable of the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series, and the first to be adapted from non-MR James source material. The eerie tunnel mouth location, the enshrouding fog, the constant bleakness of the moors and, of course, Denholm Elliot’s performance as the harrowed and haunted hero of the title all last long in the festive memory.


The one episode of this hit and miss series that everyone remembers. With the case of the Amityville Horror still a talking-point, this tale of an innocent family hounded in their new home by a demonic force that either created or was caused by an act of pure evil, was timely indeed, and incorporated some spectacularly horrible moments. Remember the children’s party that became a bloodbath?


Another ingenious idea from Charlie Brooker, and a concept that could grace either Quatermass or Dr Who, a swarm of bee-bots, developed to help pollinate crops, being hacked and unleashed against a daily target of choice, as chosen by social media users. Not just an ominous vision of things to come, but a nightmare that might become reality even sooner than Brooker realised.


Supernatural was bedevilled by low budget production, sometimes playing the Blue Peter trick of offering simple line-drawings as excuses for exotic landscapes, but though all the stories trod familiar Gothic horror footpaths, this very different spin on Frankenstein added much, much more. Again, it’s too talkie, but the actual festival of the marionettes is a genuine eye-popper.

12. LEAVING LILY (1975)

A little-seen half-hour gem from the pen and director’s chair of Graham Baker. It concerns a young Norfolk farmhand determined to do his bit at the height of World War One, but while he spends his last day before enlistment with his village sweetheart, Lily, a menacing khaki-clad figure is slowly crossing the fens towards them, and with it, a terrible revelation.


The near total studio-bound production somehow fails to reduce the nightmarish quality of this episode from Hell. You never see the verminous antagonists, but the noise they make is mind-numbing, the screams of the dying appallingly real, while the cast give it everything they’ve got, slipping from suburban normality into childlike terror and despair with total conviction.


A vampire tale makes the cut. It’s not perfect, but all the tropes are there: the Grand Tour setting, the journey into the heart of a nameless land, the Gothic castle, the mysterious beauty who only appears at night, and the gleefully demonic nature of the undead, particularly in the guise of TV horror veteran John Justin, who is truly terrifying as the titular anti-heroine’s monstrous father.


An ultra-violent tale of the inner city to contrast sharply with the others on this list. The marvellous East End nightclub where it was mostly filmed, the fun that ‘old lag’ actors Leslie Grantham, Nicholas Ball, Ray Burdis and John Bowler all have in familiar underworld roles, and the story itself – a study of youthful arrogance taken to lethal levels – all conspire to make this a distinct cut above the rest of the series.

16. GHOSTWATCH (1992)

Stephen Volk’s ingenious foray into paranormal mockumentary long before anyone else thought of it. Based on the infamous Enfield haunting, Volk placed TV presenters Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene in a fabricated outside broadcast allegedly coming by live transmission from a suburban cul-de-sac, where a young family are in the grip of supernatural evil. It literally terrified the nation.


An ensemble cast partly perform and partly narrate this neat adaptation of one of Evelyn Waugh’s few horror stories. The genteel author originally intended this as a slice of dark, satirical humour, but it’s actually pretty grim. It tells the tale of an insane murderer and the ghastly thing he does when a naive socialite engineers his release from the asylum where he’s been held for 35 years.


By far one of Roald Dahl’s nastiest and most unnerving horror stories. It’s little wonder that, before it was adapted for TV, it was a mainstay of Pan Horror type anthologies. It concerns a travelling man, who arrives at a small guest house, which initially seems ideal, but from where no guest has ever re-emerged alive. A bit of a one-trick idea, but genuinely horrible.


Another high point in the unfortunately uneven Hammer House of Horror series. In this one, a nice family out on a road trip offer a lift to a mysterious hooded hitchhiker, only to find themselves at the mercy of an evil doppelganger. Ultimately, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s bone-chilling all the same, and it ends with a truly memorable denouement.

20. COUNT DRACULA (1977)

Louis Jourdan and Frank Finlay as the Count and Van Helsing respectively are the heart and soul of this very faithful adaptation of the novel, which is probably more of an heir to the Hammer style than anything committed to celluloid since. Lots of blood, but also lots of sex. Dracula is a lover as well as a monster in this version, which makes him a far more interesting character in his own right.


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Gabino Iglesias (2022)

Life is a massive struggle for Mario, a native Texan of Puerto Rican descent. After a tough upbringing at the skirts of a drug addict mother, he started out with huge disadvantages, but never had much luck as an adult either, or much cash. But then the two true lights in his life are put out. When his beautiful young daughter, Anita, dies from an unusually deadly strain of leukaemia, his wife, Melisa, whom he loves dearly, goes into her shell, turning hostile to Mario, openly calling him a loser and a waste of space, and basically blaming him for all their misfortune, before abruptly leaving him.

Mario is plunged to horrendous depths by this, because in truth he’s already gone out of his way for his family. Having lost his minimal wage job through his constant attendance at the hospital, he eventually resorted to crime to pay Anita’s medical bills, his old mate, a methhead-turned-dealer called Brian securing him work as a small-time hitman. Mario, who’s essentially a moral guy, didn’t want to do it at first, but eventually convinced himself that the people he was killing were also underworld figures, who didn’t really deserve to live.

Ultimately of course, it was all for nothing, because he never earned enough to help his ailing daughter, and now it’s too late. Mario is thus a husk of a man when Brian comes calling again, this time with the offer of a high-paying job. It seems that just over the border, in Mexico, a certain Don Vasquez, a lesser crime lord overall but someone of great ambition, is looking to hire three freelance gunmen to hit a cash delivery for the Sinaloa Cartel. If it’s pulled off successfully, there’ll be huge rewards for all involved.

Brian is certainly taking the deal, along with Juanca, a superstitious ex-Cartel member with a long history of violence. At first, Mario is indifferent, unconcerned what happens to him. But then he begins to figure that with 200 large in his pocket, he might be able to entice Melisa back. Of course, they’ll be taking a staggeringly high risk. The Sinaloans are the kings of crime and vengeance in Mexico, and even beyond those borders. So, the robbers are told they’re going to need ‘special protection’. Again, Mario is okay with this, even if a bit baffled by what it actually means. He just wants to get the job done, reunite with Melisa and disappear.

But he has no comprehension of the Hell he is descending into.

To start with, Don Vasquez has well-earned his sinister reputation. His business partner, maybe his actual partner, is Gloria, a bruja, or witch, and it’s through her auspices that they will be ‘protected’, but they first must endure a series of diabolical, blood-soaked rituals, during which both the innocent and the not so innocent are horrifically tortured and mutilated.

Again, Mario seeks to excuse his presence in this company. The Cartel are the bad guys, so they deserve to be punished. He’s only doing this because he has no choice. All his life, he and his fellow brown-skinned folk have got the short end of the stick, so why should they worry about breaking a few rules themselves? But in truth, he’s starting to have doubts. Not just about himself, but about his co-bandits.

Juanca, it seems, is capable of murderous acts at the drop of a hat, and is mainly in this to get even with his former employers, on whose orders his brother was chopped to pieces while still alive (photographs of which atrocity, Juanca keeps in his car). Even Brian, most of the time a happy-go-lucky junky, continues to give away clues that he’s planning to acquire Mario’s wedge of the pay-off as well as his own. And all this time, they’re in possession of an eviscerated corpse, which they’re under orders to use in some way as a kind of weapon. Even Brian is bemused by this, continually asking what they’ve got it for, Juanca becoming increasingly irate the more often the subject is raised.

And of course, at the end of all this, if they even make it to the proposed ambush site, they’ve got to take on the Sinaloa Cartel, some of whose most experienced sicarios will be guarding the cash truck …

The first thing to say about The Devil Takes You Home is that it’s not your regular crime thriller. It’s not even your regular dope wars actioner. It is full of action, and it is set within the milieu of the dope wars. But it cuts much deeper than any of that.

One of the key subtexts Gabino Iglesias analyses here is evil. Evil as the utter absence of human morality, a vacuum of destructive chaos, and evil as an actual sentient force complete with demons and otherworldly monstrosities. And maybe evil as a combination of both, the pair of them cross-fertilising each other.

All through this book, our hero, Mario, who has been driven to the absolute end of his emotional tether, internalises and attempts to rationalise the acts of evil that he himself is either committing or standing by and allowing to happen. We hear much about the racism and prejudice that his people have been subjected to for so many generations. We are thoroughly persuaded that even by the standard of other modern day slums, life in the barrio is unlike any other form of existence. It’s cheap, it’s anonymous, no one on the outside cares about it. Mario is an American citizen, but he hails from a forgotten world where even basic necessities are hard to come by, and which most of the rest of the US does not want to know about, if it’s even aware that it exists.

All of these realities are given to us again and again as reasons for the unfolding nightmare in The Devil Takes You Home, and they are viable in that context. It’s no surprise that in Mario’s world, where there are so few indications that ‘the system’ accepted by the rest of western civilisation actually works, the gun rules and the gang member is king. But, you know, I’m not convinced that even Mario believes it 100%. This is a guy who was raised in the Christian tradition. Even now, he has much to do with saints and prayer. He is severely damaged, that much is evident, his constant failures often wrought on him by powers beyond his control, and then the untimely death of his daughter have all helped reduce him to a shadow of the man he could have been. But he still has a moral core, and he knows that all this is wrong, and deep down, he is shocked at how far he has somehow strayed from the path of the righteous.

In addition to all this, as I’ve already hinted, Gabino Iglesias contemplates evil as the work of an actual dark power, and this is the part that really separates The Devil Takes You Home from other crime thrillers of its ilk, because not only is it filled with scenes of horrific violence, it also contains visions, phantasms, witches, satanic practises and yes, even demons.

Whether that proves to be a problem for the reader is really up to them. It certainly breaks from crime fiction tradition, overlapping very comfortably into the world of horror. Personally, I like both, and combinations thereof are even better, so it worked excellently for me. But prospective buyers should be warned: much horror is also to be found in the graphic descriptions of underworld brutality. And this goes way past the average shoot-’em-up. We’re talking Don Winslow and The Cartel territory here: children systematically dismembered, adults disembowelled by crocodiles, merciless beatings that seem to go on for ages. And all the way through, the terrible looming menace of the Cartel, who are infamous for exercising vengeance the way a child would if granted absolute power, inflicting as much pain, fear and horror on their foes as they possibly can.

This is a real devil’s brew of a book (pun intended) in that regard, and again, it’s up to the individual reader how much he or she can take. Put it this way: I can take a lot, but I squirmed with discomfort on certain occasions.

But, how does it hold together as a novel? Is it more than the sum of all these grotesque parts?

Of all the books I’ve read, the one The Devil Takes You Home reminded me of most was Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is also set along the US/Mexico border, and involves a band of desperadoes embarking on an odyssey of crime across the sun-baked badlands at the behest of a villain of such towering evil that he must surely be devilish, none of them able to trust each other let alone their actual enemies. Of course, Blood Meridian didn’t have the fantastical elements (aside from the landscapes), but The Devil Takes You Home is very similar in that it’s a personalised journey into the ultimate heart of human darkness, and a weary attempt to understand why bad men do the things they do.

In equal similarity to that time-honoured classic, Iglesias’s novel is beautifully and concisely written. The sense of place and character are all but tangible. Your skin burns to the touch of the Texas sun. You shudder at the presence of deranged and deformed individuals who scare you just by being on the page. And if at least one purpose of this story is to contrast the visceral, in-yer-face evils of this hellish place with maybe the wider-spread, more subtle evils of the ‘civilised world’, then it succeeds on that level too.

Maybe it’s not the great American novel that Blood Meridian is proclaimed to be, but The Devil Takes You Home lives long in the memory. It’s an ideal read for horror fans, and for thriller fans too if they can accept that certain cruel acts can indeed summon the darkness, but its appeal should go way beyond that, because there is much, much more to it.

And now, as usual, here’s my attempt to pre-empt the cast of this baby, should it end up on the silver screen at some point, which it surely must do. Only a bit of fun, of course.

Mario – Pedro Pascal (who else but the man of the moment?)
Brian – Bill Skarsgård
Juanca – Eugenio Derbez

(I have a little confession to make. The image accompanying the entry for LEAVING LILY in the 20 Top TV Horror Moments section is obviously not a screen-grab from British television. It is a reproduction of STORMTROOPERS ADVANCING UNDER GAS by Otto Dix, a German painter and WW1 veteran who specialised in creating horrific portrayals of that ghastly conflict, so I felt it was a reasonable replacement. LEAVING LILY has almost no footprint on the internet at present, though I understand that a video copy of it still exists in the archive, so it might at some point be re-released). 


  1. Love that list of top 20. The House That Bled to Death and the faceless Nun were real corkers in their day. As many of the others. The Stone Tape was another that terrified the crap out of my Mum and I when we first seen it!!

  2. Yeah, The Stone Tape was a memorable classic, but as I say, I didn't have the space to include everything, and I don't think it spooked me quite as much as the other Nigel Kneale offerings. But thanks for the comment, Pat.

  3. You've put plenty in. Always interesting to have a writer's take on these things.