SIMON BALL begins his new column looking at Strange, a spooky BBC series from the early noughties
Hello Spooky Islanders and welcome to the Telly Tomb, your new regular column where I will be disinterring the spooky treasures buried deep within the TV archives.
To me it often seems that the cinema’s wee stay at home cousin gets overlooked as it lurks in film’s dark shadows, but there’s a whole world of devilish good fun just waiting to be dug up.
So lets open the casket and take a look at something Strange by both name and nature.
About the nearest thing to an English Gothic X-Files, only with the Church of England being responsible for the conspiracy theory, Strange was piloted on the BBC in March 2002 and followed by a run of six episodes in 2003.
Richard Coyle played former priest John Strange, defrocked under mysterious circumstances involving deaths that he claimed were demonic in origin.
Strange has his own Lone Gunmen in techno geek Toby (Bryan Dick) and Kevin (Timmy Lang) who has Down’s syndrome and the ability to sense the presence of demons. His unwilling Scully in the fight against demonkind was Jude (Samantha Janus) a former physics research scientist turned to nursing to make ends meet.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts, what kind of scientist are you?” John Strange, pilot episode
Strange and Jude are drawn together in the pilot, when the Reverend Rutt, a priest translating a demonological text for Strange, is admitted to Jude’s stroke ward. When the patient spells out a demon’s name with scrabble tiles and combusts Strange is called in to view the body, only Church of England’s fixer Canon Black (played by the sublimely sinister Ian Richardson) has colluded with the hospital management to disappear the charred corpse.
Worse than that Jude’s boyfriend, Rich (Alastair Mackenzie) turns out to be the earthly manifestation of the scrabble tile demon Azal, a creature of pure electricity. Toby discovers a photo of someone who looks very much like Rich on the internet, only it dates back to the mid 19th century and he’s Michael Faraday’s assistant. Yes this is one smart electric demon, no longer reliant on lightning he can tap into a ready supply of power in your house. Only Azal does not have it all his own way and as he prepares to zap Strange, rational scientist Jude earths the power supply he is connected to. Result one frazzled demon.
“I expect he’s the only demon I’m going to be meeting in my lifetime” Jude, pilot episode,
Jude should be so lucky, at the conclusion of the pilot her son with Rich freaks out Kevin as they enjoy a kickabout.
Strange was one of those quality productions the BBC does so well.
The script was intelligently written by Andrew Marshall whose experience with superior sitcoms shines through with some witty dialogue to lighten what could otherwise be quite a gloomy theme.
Atmospheric production and costume design combine with moody lighting, photography and a sympathetic musical score to give the series a cinematic feel, yes if Hammer had made the X-files, this is how it would have been done.
And given the low budget the effects were pretty good too, though much is achieved by implication.
I particularly enjoyed Azal’s first manifestation at Rutt’s vicarage, the cat hisses as the milk in the his saucer boils, a bible burst into flames and the wall mounted crucifix inverts itself, could have been designed by MR James!
The casting was exemplary: Coyle broods darkly as Strange; Janus sparkles as the rational half of the partnership and even looks stunning in a nurse’s uniform and cardy, whereas Richardson in full ecclesiastical garb (no casual suit and dog collar for Canon Black, it’s the full cassock and cloak) really steals every scene he is in with the full force of his malavolencet. Direction was by Joe Aherne who had helmed Channel 4’s groundbreaking vampire drama Ultraviolet and went on to write and direct Apparitions with Martin Shaw as exorcist priest Father Jacob Myers as well as several episodes of Dr Who and Da Vinci’s Demons.
Strange and Jude continued their fight against demonkind in the six episodes that followed in 2003 with only one minor casting change. Bran Dick was replaced by Andrew Lee Potts as Toby (casting that surely must have influenced his role as techno geek Connor in Dino drama Primeval).
Broadcast erratically on BBC1’s primetime Saturday night slot Strange didn’t bring in the ratings the BBC wanted to score a second series, despite the evolution of an interesting story arc which would hopefully have explained Strange’s origin and exactly what Canon black was up to, but then there were no Spooky Islanders to campaign for its return then.
Strange has yet to be issued as a DVD, but all the episodes can be found on Youtube.