Strictly Come Dancing Halloween Special Part II: Let’s Do the Timewarp Again, If You Insist!

So, last week I noted that one of the interesting things about Strictly‘s Halloween night special was its sense of the key horror monsters and sub-genres, but it seems that I didn’t elaborate enough. So, let me be a bit clearer.

If this year was all very ‘Tim Burton’, the central feature is less about the director of Edward Sissorhands (and mate of David Cameron), but rather about a version of the Gothic that brings together the classic Universal monsters with fairy-tales and folklore.

As a result, there isn’t much Jigsaw (from Saw) or Freddie (from Nightmare on Elm Street) or Jason (from Friday the 13th) or even Michael Myers (from Halloween). In fact, there was a marked absence of serial killers altogether. Not even Norman Bates or Hannibal Lector get a look in.

Instead, Frankenstein’s monster was on hand to usher the dancers off stage, but Leatherface was nowhere to be seen.

Similarly, while last year was relatively free of the Tim Burton touches, it relied on the same conception. There was a Scooby Doo dance routine, and an mad scientist number. The classics were also evoked through a performance that featured circus freaks, and another with a hint of vampirism. Even when series winner, Louis Smith, gave us a zombie dance, it was less Night of the Living Dead and more the return of the Graveyard Ghoul. In other words, his zombie was a monster that was more closely associated with folklore than cinema. It is therefore striking that other routines also included another corpse-bride-type ghoul, a sinister warlock and a rather sexy Little Red Riding Hood, featuring Girls Aloud’s Kimberley Walsh simultaneously attracting and rebuffing a sexually predatory wolf – or at least that was my reading of what was going on…

Nor were things so different this year. The association with black magic and zombies cropped up again in a voodoo-themed dance, while there was an absolutely baffling (to me) number involving scarecrows (okay so there are a few horror stories involving scary scarecrows, but these scarecrows were hardly scary and I wouldn’t say that the scarecrow had a particularly strong association with horror or Halloween … maybe its just me).

There was a female vampire from Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and a rather fabulous ‘lady from the lake’ routine, in which the clothing was suggestive of ghosts and/or the walking dead, but that was about it. In another dance sequence, ghostly, cobweb-covered portraits became animated, which is always nice, and we got yet more cases of graveyard dead. There was Dave Myers from the Hairy Bikers doing the Monster Mash in make up that made him look like Michael Keaton from Beetlejuice; and another Tim Burton film was referenced in a routine that drew heavily on Mars Attacks! But as so often happens most of the references in the other routines went straight over my head. Quite what the shirtless rugby player had to do with Halloween completely escaped me.  But then, just when we were feeling a bit confused, Susanna from the Breakfast News was chased by a werewolf, just to reassure us that we knew where we were again.

And of course everything is done with a sense of campy dress up which is less Tim Burton and more Rocky Horror.

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Ace of Wands (1970-1972) – British Television Horror for Kids

There is a whole wealth of fantasy stuff that was produced for British kids in the 1960s and 1970s. It is a strange story. On one hand, it is worth remembering that some of the first films sold to television were the old Universal horror films, which were transmitted as part of children’s entertainment in late 1950s America. These films were already seen as dated when compared to the horror films that were being produced at the time: these films were being sold to television at around the same time as Hammer was having its first successes, Les Diaboliques was drawing huge crowds to art cinemas, and only a short time before Hitchcock and Michael Powell would make (respectively) Psycho and Peeping Tom.

So what does this tell us? Well, that the relationship between children and fantasy is an odd one: on the one hand, horror and fantasy are often associated with children, partly because they are seen as ‘childish’ and ‘silly’ when compare to more ‘adult’ and ‘serious’ forms such as social realism; but. on the other, they are often seen as worrying in relation to children. Fairy tales and Father Christmas are usually alright for the children, while the rest of us know that they are nonsense; but many people worry that children’s imaginations are fragile things that can’t handle things like the rest of us; and that they therefore can’t distinguish fiction from reality and might be traumatized by horror and fantasy.

Consequently, while horror is often seen as only fit for children, it is also often restricted to adults; and children’s horror is either derided for not being scary enough, or for being too scary. Even Dr Who provoked the censors in the 1960s and 1970s.

Anyhow, British television produced a whole slew of fantasy and horror television for kids in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of it was great, like Doctor Who; some of it was wonderfully awful (what the hell was Martin Landau doing in Space 1999); and some of it was wonderfully weird, like Ace of Wands.

In this series, Tarot is a a mystic magician who battles all manner of weird and wonderful menaces with his supernatural powers – you know, telepathy and all that kind of stuff. He is also supported by two assistants (like the good doctor) and an owl called Ozymandias. In the first two series, the assistants were Sam and Lulli, but they were replaced in the third season by brother and sister, Chas and Mikki. Although it should be mentioned that there were strong parallels between the both sets of assistants. For example, both Lulli and Mikki shared a telepathic link with Tarot (and had similar names).

Unfortunately, there aren’t many of the episodes left, although series three is available on DVD, and is well worth a gander. It’s the counter-culture for kids, sort of…

In one story, the local market is being driven into decline by some strange curse, but it also becomes clear that the situation is being manipulated by an evil corporate figure who lives in a strange, white, sealed office at the top of a large modern tower-block that overlooks the market: critiques of gentrification and corporate capitalism in a show for kiddies. Of course, the politics of the show as a whole is a little more odd: the corporate bigwig commands via a counter-cultural gang, who terrorize the market; and, in another story, Tarot and his assistants combat an evil threat to NATO, in which old ladies are the enemy! And then, in yet another story, the menace are a group of beautiful young people who are giving away expensive domestic appliances to the elderly but turn out to be plotting something dastardly that involves the old folk being endangered by their appliances, or something…

I am not claiming that Ace of Wands is a work of genius, but its great fun, and demonstrates that Dr Who was far from being the only game in town during the period. In fact, the period was a fertile one for children’s fantasy television, and we write these stories out of the history of horror and fantasy television at our peril!

Next Week: Kindred: The Embraced (1996): The 1990s that You May Have Chosen to Forget!

Grimm – It’s All About The Sidekicks!

I must admit to having a real fondness for Grimm. It is a mess, and its makers seem to find it impossible to make the hero interesting. But it is the peripherals that matter here. The series is partly the creation of David Greenwalt, who brought us Angel, which gives you a fair sense of what the show is like. Its sort of angel mixed with some fairy-tale horror.

Of course, fairy-tale horror is so hot right now. In movies, there is  Snow White and the Huntsman and, in television, there is Grimm and Once Upon a Time. I am guessing that this is some sort of post-Twilight attempt to develop horror properties that have a strong female angle, but it also makes for a nice change of gear. In fact, Grimm‘s use of the pacific northwestern woods, and of sets that visually remind one of fairy-tales, actually makes the series look pretty good and quite atmospheric.

The problem with the show is, as I have indicated, its hero, Nick Burkhardt, a cop who discovers that he is descended from a family of Grimms. But what are Grimms? They weren’t just a couple of brothers who collected folk-tales but a group of monster hunters that are endowed with superpowers and a monster-killing destiny! The problem is that I am both confused about both their powers and their destiny.

At first, it seems that their destiny is to battle evil, but then Nick quickly works out that there are a whole series of species of ‘monsters’ and many of them are benign or, at least, feature individuals that are able to suppress their urges and live in harmony with humans. So it turns out that Nick is actually a nice Grimm and that most Grimms in the past were pretty much racist vigilantes – or worse! May even seem to have done the bidding of the key force of evil in the series, The Varrat, a kind of aristocratic, fascistic association for evil that I am still trying to understand. But they are bad (or at least some of them are!)

But if Nick’s destiny seems confused, his superpowers are even more weird. In short, they seem to boil down to two key abilities: the ability to see monsters for what they really are (all other humans are simply too unimaginative to be able to process reality); and the ability to fight brilliantly with weapons that he has never used before. Oh, and he has a really impressive library, which he stores in a trailer (kind of like a super academic!) But the trailer also contains an impressive arsenal of strange weapons (which isn’t like a super academic, or none that I know anyhow).

The trouble is that Nick just isn’t very interesting. He doesn’t seem to have any ‘story’. By series two, even his girlfriend has forgotten who he is! Okay, so that’s supposed to be the result of magic but I think that it is also a sign that the makers have spotted the problem.

None of which does anything to dampen my enthusiasm for the show. If Nick is a little boring (and I feel mean saying this when the actor that plays him is trying so hard to do something with his impossible role), the series is chock full of great characters; and I find myself watching each episode with a thrill, while thinking of all the great spin-off shows that they could create.

Of course, leader of the pack is Monroe, a friendly werewolf, who is one of Nick’s numerous sidekicks, and the coolest cat (canine) on television. He is funny and engaging; has an interior struggle; and I can’t wait for the forthcoming Werewolf of Portland, a fantasy project that I have invented in my own head.

I must admit to also being quite excited about the spin-off with Rosalee, Monroe’s partner, where she battles evil from her store of magic and potions – unfortunately, Monroe and Rosalee would have to split up for this and that would be a shame as they are a lovely couple. Their nervous romance is one of the key pleasures of the series.

Another great series would feature Nick’s police captain, Sean Renard, who is a member of one of the royal families of Europe (the evil, monster ones) and probably a member of the Varrat (but I am not sure). He’s great. I love him. And I still don’t know if he is good or evil. But, frankly, I don’t care.

I could also imagine a pretty good series with Nick’s girlfriend (so long as she can dump Nick). In the first series, she was incredibly boring and her only real function was to represent that ‘ordinary’ life of happy domesticity that was now lost to Nick. So basically she was kept ignorant of everything happening elsewhere in the show. However, by the end of series one, she was brutally pulled into the main plot and, as series two progressed, she becomes more and more interesting – as she forgot about Nick entirely and developed a narrative of her own.

Even Nick’s partner-in-crime (or crime-fighting), Hank, is more appealing than Nick. He’s human but learning to cope with a reality in which monsters exist, even if he can’t quite see them with the clarity that Nick can. I can’t quite see how he could become the centre of his own spin-off but he is still more interesting than Nick.