The anthology series, whether based on adapted works of fiction or original scripts, is a form particularly suited to horror on the small screen. There is an argument that the short story is an ideal medium for horror fiction: long enough for the author to produce his or her effects and atmosphere and chills, without subplots and the other necessities of the novel length diluting them. The same goes with original scripts: a TV production of thirty, forty, fifty minutes, say, can have an effect that a full-length serial may not have. Think of the BBC's celebrated adaptations of M.R. James (not forgetting Dickens) from the 1970s. As I write this, we are due a new James adaptation, The Tractate Middoth, which will be Mark Gatiss's directorial debut. Also think of Dead of Night, the three surviving episodes of which the BFI have recently released on disc as part of their celebration of all things Gothic. And now we have Supernatural, an eight-part anthology series whose first and only broadcast was late on Saturday nights between 11 June and 6 August 1977.
Supernatural was created by Robert Muller, who also wrote seven of the eight episodes. Muller was a German-born writer who had begun working for television with an ITV Armchair Theatre in 1962 and had developed a reputation as an adaptor of classics as well as for his original work. He had form in the macabre, with adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Body Snatcher and The Suicide Club as well as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for Associated-Rediffusion's anthology series Mystery and Imagination, between 1966 and 1970. (The Body Snatcher is now lost, but the latter two still exist in the archive.) In Supernatural, we are introduced to the Club of the Damned, a Victorian gentlemen's club where would-be members are required to tell a true-life tale of terror. If they succeed in scaring the Club, they will be allowed to join. If they fail, they die. The eight episodes of Supernatural, are those seven stories, one of them in two parts.
In the horror genre, there are two lines of thought that remain to this day. Is the genre a vehicle for exploring contemporary fears and anxieties, often in contemporary settings, or is it one that explores traditional tropes, and often harks back to the past? We see both of these strains in the DVDs that the BFI has released. Dead of Night is an example of the former, using its supernatural stories to explore themes of class conflict, mid-life crisis and bereavement, and feminism. So also does Robin Redbreast. In the Ghost Stories for Christmas, we have both: the M.R. James and Dickens adaptations are inevitably historical pieces but there are also the two contemporary-set original stories, Stigma and The Ice House (reviewed here. However, Supernatural| is very much a thing of the past, with its settings in the nineteen century, often in continental Europe and its use of many archetypal genre themes: ghosts, werewolves, doppelgängers, sinister dolls, vampires and so on. It's full-blown Gothic, evident from the crashing organ chords at the start, and the sinister architecture, with gargoyles in abundance, shown during the opening credits.
Supernatural was not a success in the ratings, and has not been repeated, nor was an additional series commissioned. This may well have been a matter of timing: it was shown in the middle of summer rather than in the dark wintry nights when almost everything else mentioned here was broadcast. That was also a summer where the national mood in the UK was one of pride and celebration, as the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee in the month the first episodes were transmitted. It also didn't help that the series began with its worst episode, “Ghosts of Venice”, a stagey piece set in the painfully obviously studio-bound city of the title, featuring much scenery-mastication from Robert Hardy in the lead role. I've mentioned before that a lot of television drama at the time – often by writers who started their careers in the 50s or 60s, was more akin to the theatre than film. That was something brought about by the medium as it was then: the prevalent use of video, the fact that up until the 60s TV drama was broadcast live, and a tendency for actors to project to the back row, given the much smaller size of television sets then. There's certainly something very writerly about Muller's period-speak dialogue, and there's a noticeable shift in style in the episode he didn't write, “Viktoria”, a creepy doll story written by Sue Lake, which is one of the best episodes in the set.
One thing you can't complain about is the cast, and if Hardy disappoints, there are strong performances from Billie Whitelaw (Muller's then wife), Denholm Elliott, John Osborne (the author of <Look Back in Anger and other plays, here in his less-well-known second career as an actor), Gordon Jackson and others, not forgetting genuine Central/Eastern European actors then working in the UK, such as Sandor Elès and Vladek Sheybal. Incidentally, I wonder if the presence of a genuine Hungarian (Elès) in the two-parter “Countess Ilona” and “The Werewolf Reunion”, is the reason for more-correct Hungarian pronunciations, such as the final syllable of Budapest as “pesht”. (Trivia note: Stefan Gates, who plays the countess's young son in the same stories, was a child actor and is now a food writer and broadcaster and can be seen as a nude five-year-old, along with his sister, on the cover of Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy.) Anyone who has seen Schalcken the Painter, which the BFI have released simultaneously with this, will note the earlier pairing of hapless hero and sinister antagonist, Jeremy Clyde and John Justin respectively, in the final story here, “Dorabella”.
Supernatural is an uneven series, and whether you prefer its more traditional historical take on horror to the more contemporary ones elsewhere will be a matter of taste. If the 1970s was a golden age for the genre on British television (that said, most of the examples from earlier decades are now lost so we can't see them to judge), then Supernatural is not in the top flight, but certainly worth checking out for those with an interest in small-screen chills. 1977 was too early for any great take-up of home video, so for many people, myself included (twelve at the time and would never have been allowed to stay up for this), this is their first opportunity to see it.
Supernatural is released by the BFI on two dual-layered discs, both encoded for Region 2 only. There are four episodes per disc, as follows:
“Ghosts of Venice” (48:44)
“Countess Ilona” (48:36)
“The Werewolf Reunion” (49:32)
“Mr. Nightingale” (48:57)
“Lady Sybil” (51:45)
“Night of the Marionettes” (49:39)
For those wishing possibly to traumatise their children, or not, the first three stories have PG certificates, with the BBFC giving the remaining five the 12 certificate this release bears.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.33:1, which you would expect of 70s television. The series was made on 625-line PAL video for the most part, with a varying amount of prefilmed and/or location scenes shot on 16mm – none at all for “Ghosts of Venice”, rather more in “Dorabella”. The DVD transfers were derived from the one-inch videotapes held by the BBC. The limitations of the source are inevitable and certainly present: rather muddy colours in places, with some bleed and trails on such as candle flames. The film-shot material is grainy, as it would have been. I've said it before but we are watching on larger and more unforgiving equipment that would have been the case in 1977, and there's nothing here that is at all untoward for any television production of the time that I've seen before on disc.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and is clear and well-balanced. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing: I didn't spot any mistakes in them.
The only extras on the discs is Test Card F, along with the other BFI Gothic DVD releases. It can be found in the set-up menu on each disc.
The BFI's booklet has a lengthy and thorough essay on the series by Julian Upton. This does contain spoilers, so read after you have seen the episodes. Also in the booklet are brief summaries of the “tales to entertain the Club of the Damned”, full credits for each episode (those for “Viktoria” contain something of a spoiler) and a biography of Robert Muller written by the late Tise Vahimagi reprinted from BFI Screenonline.