CHRIS NEWTON looks at 1970s paranormal TV show – Beasts: Special Offer (1976)
A symphony of scrabbling and scratching heralds the arrival of Nigel Kneale’s Beasts. It’s a perfect introduction to a stark series that focuses on savagery, its titular ‘beasts’ often actually monsters within.
In the case of its first episode, Special Offer, a beast lies sleeping within Paulin Quirke’s Noreen, a socially awkward teenage checkout girl working in Briteway, a suitably bleak 70s supermarket. For reasons best known to herself, Noreen harbours feelings for her lecherous manager, Colin Grimely (Geoffrey Bateman), although his attentions are only ever for Noreen’s pretty young colleague, Linda (Shirley Cheriton), who wants Noreen gone on the grounds that she’s a weirdo. “She’s so dead gruesome. Sorta clammy. Did you ever shake hands with her?”
Poor Noreen is only ever the brunt of Grimely’s derision. “I can’t stand her. She’s a stupendous, giant-sized, unrepeatable drag!” And when June, an older assistant, who seems slightly more sympathetic, suggest she “fix up your face a bit like the other girls”, Noreen turns up the next day looking like Cesar Romero’s Joker, prompting further ridicule from Grimley and Linda.
A series of strange disturbances in the shop are blamed on a mysterious animal that Noreen names ‘Billy’, after ‘Briteway Billy’, the store’s mascot. There are frequent closeups of this cartoon character, almost daring us to entertain the absurdity that this could be a real rodent running riot among the isles. This is what Beasts – and Kneale as a writer – does best: the power of the implication. Throughout the series there are a plethora images that are so cheesy that they border on being uncomfortably weird, from Briteway Billy to the Betty Boop eyed cartoon dolphin in ‘Buddyboy’ and the bizarre costume in ‘The Dummy’.
But ‘Billy’ is not an animal, despite Noreen’s assertation that she saw something. “An animal. A dog, it must have been that.” The disturbances in the shop become so severe that Linda flees in terror, much to Grimley’s chagrin.
My favourite character in this episode is actually Mr. Liversedge (Wensley Pithey), Grimely’s boss who turns up to sort out the problem. But whilst Grimely sees Noreen herself as the problem, it’s Liversedge who unexpectedly pronounces the disturbances to be the work of a poltergeist. Far from being superstitious, he takes an interestingly philosophical approach, citing events experienced by somebody he knew.
“There was a house and there were noises. Thumps and knocking and whatnot. And then furniture moving and things flying about … And the cause of it all was a young kid. A boy. Things happened when he was there and when he wasn’t, they didn’t.”
Whilst Grimely thinks Noreen is pulling some kind of prank, Liversedge notices something supernatural is afoot from the off. Possibly because, despite Grimely’s assertations that “she’s dead thick”, Liversedge is the only character to show Noreen some genuine warmth and respect, and takes her out for a coffee in an incredibly endearing scene. In fact, it’s one of the few genuinely compassionate scenes in the entire series. Just don’t get used to it! There’s even comedy when Liversedge asks her how she likes her coffee, to which Noreen replies “Oh, I do like it.”
In our Beasts Episode guide, I pointed out the similarities between this and Carrie (1976): the frustrations of the adolescent outcast manifest supernaturally, the sense of innate human cruelness and the public humiliation of the central character. But whilst Quirke is suitably awkward as Noreen, there is something very odd about her that makes her hard to warm to. I think it’s the fact that, far from lying, she seems to genuinely believe that Billy exists. Has her imaginary friend – inspired by the cutesy Briteway mascot – come to life somehow to terrorise her tormentors? This is why it’s a fantastic introduction to the series: there is something furious deep within Noreen, born of sexual frustration and rage, that she genuinely sees as being ‘other’ than herself. That same force is manifest in a variety of ways throughout the rest of the series, particularly in ‘The Dummy’, giving the whole series a cyclical sense of completion.
In short: it’s not perfect, and it’s of it’s time, but it’s elevated by some great performances (Bateman is brilliantly smarmy as Grimely and Quirke really sells the weird outsider. She’s frightening, irritating and sympathetic in equal measures), an intriguing premise and, as ever, Kneale’s knack for dialogue. As I’ve said before, I’d love to see Beasts resurrected for radio. The human drama, the snarls and the screams are ripe for reinterpretation and, 43 years later, Special Offer is still the best introduction to the whole beastly business.