Is There Room for Horror on UK TV?

I mentioned that I’d enjoyed Mark Gatiss’ version of The Tractate Middoth over Christmas. And although that is certainly more of a ghost story than a horror story, it made me wonder why we don’t get more horror series on British television. Series like American Horror Story, and arguably The Walking Dead, prove that there’s popularity in these kinds of tales. There was Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set, and we’ve had vampire tales of various sorts – not least the current Dracula on Sky Living and BBC Three’s Being Human.

But none of those are really horror series. Out to scare you and give you frights. There are tense bits, but they try to do other things as well.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that we don’t actually have the slots that could show such shows on the main channels. Yes BBC Three or ITV2 can do something, but think about BBC One and Two, ITV and Channel 4. The times of the main news programmes on those channels limits what’s possible for the most part.

Bear in mind that although there is a 9pm watershed that should allow programmes to be a bit scarier/violent/sexier, there are rules that dictate that broadcasters don’t start too abruptly with unsuitable material:

“Content that commences after the watershed should observe a smooth transition to more adult content. It should not commence with the strongest material.” – Ofcom guidance

As an example of this, Channel 4 recently rescheduled the imported Masters of Sex from 9pm to 10pm mid-run. This may have been due to ratings, but even the “previously on Masters of Sex” segment would have needed re-editing to go out at directly at 9pm.

Now Channel 4 is the only channel that has a suitable drama slot in that it can show hour long series at 10pm. And they used it last year for Utopia, although I suspect that they were disappointed with the viewing figures (it was one of my favourite programmes of 2013). BBC One and Two need to start their dramas at 9pm. OK, BBC Two could start theirs at 9.30pm but given that nobody else has a programme junction at that time, it’d be a very daring thing to do. ITV similarly has to start dramas at 9pm.

There’s nothing to stop a channel running a drama after the news at 10.35pm, but that’s not a slot that’d get a high audience, and channels rightly decide that they’ll spend their drama money when the audience is watching.

None of this is a problem for smaller channels – BBC Three or Four could do it; Sky Atlantic does do it to an extent (The Following is almost a horror series); Sky Living can do it.

But I wonder to what extent the biggest commissioners of original UK drama are constrained by the time-slots available to them? And does that prevent someone making a full-blown horror series?

Radio and TV Favourites

I think my favourite TV programmes over the Christmas and New Year period were a series of films that I didn’t spot at all when I was going through the Radio Times. Endeavour: Everest was a series of three films made by Leo Dickinson shot in and around Mount Everest between 1976 and 1991. They each focus on a different challenge – canoeing down from Everest, making the first ascent of the mountain without oxygen, and the first (and only) flight over the mountain in a hot-air balloon. Dickinson has made many adventure films over the years, and I believe that some of these were originally made for HTV, and they’ve been cleaned up digitally and scanned in HD. So it’s lovely that BBC Four has just gone fully HD to allow viewers to see the most of these films. I think they’ve also been brought up to date a little – for example there’s a Google Maps insert in one of them. But for the most part, they’re still the original award-winning film documentaries.

Two of the films are narrated by Ian McNaught-Davis, who I tend to think of as the chap who presented many of the BBC’s microcomputer programmes in the eighties, but who is also an alpine climber. What’s fascinating about these films, along with epic stories they’re telling, is the way the stories are constructed technically and tightness of the narrative. When you watch a 21st century production, you know that you can probably skip the first five minutes since it’ll give away all the highlights up front. And if it’s on a commercial channel, this will happen at every break. There’s also a distance in these films. Partly I suspect due to the challenges of recording audio as well as film, the films are narrated at a distance. There’s rarely a shot of any of the participants directly addressing the camera. Today it’s a given that we’ll have a night vision “video diary” inside a tent somewhere. But the distance lends something too. It just shows that there are more than one way to skin a cat.

It also feels as though these aren’t really the films that TV companies are interested in any longer. Witness Ben and James Versus the Empty Quarter on BBC Two, or Bear’s Wild Weekend with Stephen Fry. I enjoyed both of these, but it’s very clear that a different form of programme is required by schedulers these days. We need to already know who the participants are. Even if their claim to fame is that they’re a mate of Ewan McGregor!

All three films are still on iPlayer, and get another outing on BBC Four next Monday to Wednesday.

On the radio, I’ve got to highlight a couple of sets of letters that appeared in the Book of the Week slot on Radio 4. Neither is sadly still there on the Radio 4 website – roll on the 30 day catch-up. First up is a delightful reading of Darling Monster, letters from Lady Diana Cooper to her son – Darling Monster. These were beautifully read by Patricia Hodge with inserts from John Julius Norwich – the son in question. Cooper led a wonderful life and seemed to know everybody.

The letters in the lead up to the war and during it are utterly engrossing. Of course over one hour and fifteen minutes you only get a taster of the letters, so just today I’ve been out to buy the book the letters are extracted from (It’s half price in some branches of Waterstones just now.

The other set of diaries I only listened to after I’d read the diaries in question. I read some rave reviews of Love Nina in the papers, but I was a little nervous. The people who were saying such lovely things are very much part of the literary set. And this book of letters from Nina Stibbes who arrived in NW1 as a nanny is just brilliantly funny. The cast of characters is wonderful with some very funny kids under her care as well as Alan Bennett dropping by for supper each night. She writes back to her sister in Leicester relaying direct quotations from all and sundry. It’s just wonderful. You need to read/listen to it! At time of writing, just the last episode is still on iPlayer, while the book is thoroughly recommended and can also be found for half price in the Waterstones sale. Both the assistant who sold me my copy and a stranger on a train expressed excitement when they saw me with the book.

Perhaps both of these will show up on Radio 4 Extra in due course.

Also on the radio was the regular New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna – a firm favourite for me. It also gets broadcast on BBC Two and again on BBC Four. Invariably, a CD will be available.

And there was a lovely Front Row special on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was only ever a very occassional watcher, but seeing as the whole thing is on Netflix…

More or Less always does a good “numbers of the year” episode which is worth a listen. And while I didn’t hear a great deal of the celebrity edited Today programmes, I did listen to an interesting discussion at the end of Eliza Manningham-Buller’s edition which really didn’t address some of the serious points Tim Berners-Lee had made the day before over the nature of the Snowdon leaks. (Deserving of a whole blog to itself, is a superb and essential piece by John Naughton from Sunday’s Observer.)

On TV, the obvious highlight was Sherlock. Put away your phones and tablets when you’re watching it. You’ll miss something. The verve of the shoe is joyous. And I loved the way they handled the “how did he survive” element. It looks like this brief run – all three episodes over ten days – will give us another bad guy to enjoy. We even got a mini episode. And Mark Gatiss was great too!

Gatiss is on a hot streak, as he directed a fine new MR James adaptation of The Tractate Middoth (the BFI collection of previous Christmas ghost stories was a lovely present for me this year). And this was followed by a superb documentary on the man himself. It’s always wonderful to discover that there’s someone alive who can be interviewed who knew the subject. Although both have dropped off the iPlayer, I’m sure a DVD release will happen in due course – perhaps by the BFI in time for next Christmas?

We managed to wean the family off Downton this year – the scripts really are awful. But I was a little disappointed by Doctor Who. It wasn’t bad – just not as great as the fiftieth anniversary episode a few weeks ago. I’m looking forward to Peter Capaldi though (first up in the new Musketeers series!).

I did like Death Comes to Pemberley over three nights though. It kept my family engrossed, even if mum had read the book and it was all we could do not to get her to give away plot details. The story was very cleverly weaved into the existing world I thought. And PD James can tell a good whodunnit. I’m also looking forward to the stars’ upcoming new series: Anna Maxwell Martin’s Bletchley Circle which starts on Monday, and the second series of The Americans with Matthew Rhys (I’m curious to see what ITV does with this, since I think they thought they had the new Homeland. But even if they did, I’m not convinced they’ve got anywhere they can naturally house it. ITV3 is probably their best bet, but they’d have to tell people it was there!).

Still Open All Hours felt very much like a pilot for a new run of the show. I guess David Jason still feels he wants to prove something after the fiasco of The Royal Bodyguard. Judging by the numbers it got, I’d have thought there was a fairly decent chance of that happening assuming all those involved want to. However I’m a bit concerned about the constant temptation to revisit old classics rather than make new ones. I’ve not been “lucky” enough to watch the ITV continuation of Birds of a Feather, but I was never a fan of it first time around, and certainly not by the time it had been on for many years. In recent years we’ve also had To The Manor Born, while Gold has made a new run of Yes Prime Minister which felt very stale in a post-Thick of It world.

Finally, I was personally really pleased to see what I think must be the return of Moments in Time. This used to run regularly and served as a news review of the year, but through the medium of iconic photojournalism. It disappeared a few years ago, but re-appeared over Christmas with a slant on the increased emergence of camera phone pictures, from the Vauxhall helicopter crash, and the Lee Rigby murderers, to the survivors of Australian bush fires. There were plenty of photos from journalists too – including the paparazzo who shot those pictures of Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson. It’s on iPlayer until 6 January.